Arthas - Rise of The Lich King

Book: Arthas: Rise of the Lich King

Arthas: Rise of the Lich King
Arthas: Rise of the Lich King

This book is dedicated to all the Warcraft lore lovers out there.


The wind shrieked like a child in pain.

The herd of shoveltusk huddled together for warmth, their thick, shaggy coats protecting them from the worst of the storm. They formed a circle, with the calves shivering and bleating in the center. Their heads, each crowned with a massive antler, drooped toward the snow-covered earth, eyes shut against the whirling snow. Their own breath frosted their muzzles as they planted themselves and endured.

…In their various dens, the wolves and bears waited out the storms, one with the comfort of their pack, the other solitary and resigned. Whatever their hunger, nothing would drive them forth until after the keening wind had ceased its weeping and the blinding snow had worn itself out.

The wind, roaring in from the ocean to beat at the village of Kamagua, tore at the hides that stretched over frames made of the bones of great sea creatures. When the storm passed, the tuskarr whose home this had been for years uncounted knew they would need to repair or replace nets and traps. Their dwellings, sturdy though they were, were always harmed when this storm descended. They had all gathered inside the large group dwelling that had been dug deep into the earth, lacing the flaps tight against the storm and lighting smoky oil lamps.

Elder Atuik waited in stoic silence. He had seen many of these storms over the last seven years. Long had he lived, the length and yellowness of his tusks and the wrinkles on his brown skin testament to the fact. But these storms were more than storms, were more than natural. He glanced at the young ones, shivering not with cold, not the tuskarr, but with fear.

“He dreams,” one of them murmured, eyes bright, whiskers bristling.

“Silence,” snapped Atuik, more gruffly than he had intended. The child, startled, fell silent, and once again the only sound was the aching sob of the snow and wind.

It rose like the smoke, the deep bellowing noise, wordless but full of meaning; a chant, carried by a dozen voices. The sounds of drums and rattles and bone striking bone formed a fierce undercurrent to the wordless call. The worst of the wind’s anger was deflected from the taunka village by the circle of posts and hides, and the lodges, their curving roofs arching over a large interior space in defiance of the hardships of this land, were strong.

Over the sound of deep and ancient ritual, the wind’s cry could still be heard. The dancer, a shaman by the name of Kamiku, missed a step and his hoof struck awkwardly. He recovered and continued. Focus. It was all about focus. It was how one harnessed the elements and wrung from them obedience; it was how his people survived in a land that was harsh and unforgiving.

Sweat dampened and darkened his fur as he danced. His large brown eyes were closed in concentration, his hooves again finding their powerful rhythm. He tossed his head, short horns stabbing the air, tail twitching. Others danced beside him. Their body heat and that of the fire, burning brightly despite the flakes and wind drifting down from the smoke hole in the roof, kept the lodge warm and comfortable.

They all knew what was transpiring outside. They could not control these winds and snow, as they could ordinary such things. No, this was his doing. But they could dance and feast and laugh in defiance of the onslaught. They were taunka; they would endure.

The world was blue and white and raging outside, but inside the Great Hall the air was warm and still. A fireplace tall enough for a man to stand in was filled with thick logs, the crackling of their burning the only noise. Over the ornately decorated mantel, carved with images of fantastical creatures, the giant antler of a shoveltusk was mounted. Carved dragon heads served as sconces, holding torches with flames burning bright. Heavy beams supported the feast hall that could have housed dozens, the warm orange hue of the fires chasing away the shadows to hide on the corners. The cold stone of the floor was softened and warmed by thick pelts of polar bears, shoveltusk, and other creatures.

A table, long and heavy and carved, occupied most of the space in the room. It could have hosted three dozen easily. Only three figures sat at the table now: a man, an orc, and a boy.

None of it was real, of course. The man who sat at the place of honor at the table, slightly elevated before the other two in a mammoth carved chair that was not quite a throne, understood this. He was dreaming; he had been dreaming for a long, long time. The hall, the shoveltusk trophies, the fire, the table—the orc and the boy—all were simply a part of his dreaming.

The orc, on his left, was elderly, but still powerful. The orange fire-and torchlight flickered off the ghastly image he bore on his heavy-jawed face—that of a skull, painted on. He had been a shaman, able to direct and wield vast powers, and even now, even just as a figment of the man’s imagination, he was intimidating.

The boy was not. Once, he might have been a handsome child, with wide sea-green eyes, fair features, and golden hair. But once was not now.

The boy was sick.

He was thin, so emaciated that his bones seemed to threaten to slice through the skin. The once-bright eyes were dimmed and sunken, a thin film covering them. Pustules marked his skin, bursting and oozing forth a green fluid. Breathing seemed difficult and the child’s chest hitched in little panting gasps. The man thought he could almost see the labored thumping of a heart that should have faltered long ago, but persisted in continuing to beat.

“He is still here,” the orc said, stabbing a finger in the boy’s direction.

“He will not last,” the man said.

As if to confirm the words, the boy began to cough. Blood and mucus spattered the table in front of him, and he wiped a thin arm clad in rotting finery across his pale mouth. He drew breath to speak in a halting voice, the effort obviously taxing him.

“You have not—yet won him. And I will—prove it to you.”

“You are as foolish as you are stubborn,” the orc growled. “That battle was won long ago.”

The man’s hands tightened on the arms of his chair as he listened to both of them. This had been a recurring dream over the last few years; he found it now more tiresome than entertaining. “I grow weary of the struggle. Let us end this once and for all.”

The orc leered at the boy, his skull-face grinning hideously. The boy coughed again, but did not quail from the orc’s regard. Slowly, with dignity, he straightened, his milky eyes darting from the orc to the man.

“Yes,” the orc said, “this serves nothing. Soon it will be time to awaken. Awaken, and move forward into this world once more.” He turned to the man, his eyes gleaming. “Walk again the path you have taken.”

The skull seemed to detach itself from his face, hovering above it like another entity, and the room changed with its movement. The carved sconces that a moment before were simple wooden dragons undulated and rippled, coming to life, the torches in their mouths flaring and casting grotesque dancing shadows as they shook their heads. The wind screamed outside and the door to the hall slammed open. Snow whirled about the three figures. The man spread his arms and let the freezing wind wrap about him like a cloak. The orc laughed, the skull floating over his face issuing its own manic peals of mirth.

“Let me show you that your destiny lies with me, and you can only know true power through eliminating him.”

The boy, fragile and slight, had been knocked out of his chair by the violent gusts of frigid air. Now he propped himself up with an effort, shaking, his breaths coming in small puffs as he struggled to climb back into his chair. He threw the man a look—of hope, fear, and odd determination.

“All is not lost,” he whispered, and somehow, despite the orc and the skull’s laughter, despite the shrieking of the wind, the man heard him.


“Hold her head; that’s it, lad!”

The mare, her normally white coat gray with sweat, rolled her eyes and whickered. Prince Arthas Menethil, only son to King Terenas Menethil II, one day to rule the kingdom of Lordaeron, held fast to the bridle and murmured soothingly.

The horse ****ed her head violently and almost took the nine-year-old with her. “Whoa, Brightmane,” Arthas said. “Easy, girl, it’ll be all right. Nothing to worry about.”

Jorum Balnir grunted in amusement. “doubt you’d feel that way if something the size of this foal was coming out of you, lad.”

His son Jarim, crouching beside his father and the prince, laughed and so did Arthas, giggling uncontrollably even as hot and soggy foam from Brightmane’s champing mouth dropped onto his leg.

“One more push, girl,” Balnir said, moving slowly along the horse’s body to where the foal, encased in a shiny shroudlike membrane, was halfway through its journey into the world.

Arthas wasn’t really supposed to be here. But when he had no lessons, he often sneaked away to the Balnir farmstead to admire the horses Balnir was known for breeding and to play with his friend Jarim. Both youths were well aware that a horsebreeder’s son, even one whose animals were regularly bought as mounts for the royal household, was not a “proper” companion for a prince. Neither cared much, and thus far none of the adults had put a halt to the friendship. And so it was that he had been here, building forts, throwing snowballs, and playing Guards and Bandits with Jarim, when Jorum had called to the boys to come watch the miracle of birth.

The “miracle of birth” was actually pretty disgusting, Arthas thought. He hadn’t realized there’d be so much…goo involved. Brightmane grunted and heaved again, her legs held stiff and straight out, and with a sloshy wet sound her baby entered the world.

Her heavy head thumped down into Arthas’s lap, and she closed her eyes for a moment. Her sides heaved as she caught her breath. The boy smiled, stroking the damp neck and thick, rough mane, and looked over to where Jarim and his father were attending to the foal. It was chilly in the stables at this time of year, and steam rose faintly from its warm, wet body. With a towel and dry hay, father and son rubbed off the last of the foal’s unsettling shroudlike covering, and Arthas felt his face stretching in a grin.

Damp, gray, all long tangled legs and big eyes, the foal looked around, blinking in the dim lantern light. Those large brown eyes locked with Arthas’s. You’re beautiful, Arthas thought, his breath stopping for a moment, and realized that the much touted “miracle of birth” really was pretty miraculous.

Brightmane began to struggle to her feet. Arthas leaped to his own and pressed back against the wooden walls of the stable so the great animal could turn around without crushing him. Mother and newborn sniffed each other, then Brightmane grunted and began to bathe her son with her long tongue.

“Eh, lad, you’re a bit worse for wear,” said Jorum.

Arthas looked down at himself and his heart sank. He was covered in straw and horse spittle. Arthas shrugged. “Maybe I should jump into a snowbank on my way back to the palace,” he offered, grinning. Sobering slightly, he said, “Don’t worry. I’m nine years old now. I’m no longer a baby. I can go where I—”

There was a squawking of chickens and the sound of a man’s booming voice, and Arthas’s face fell. He squared his small shoulders, made an intense but ultimately ineffectual attempt at brushing off the straw, and strode out of the barn.

“Sir Uther,” he said in his best I am the prince and you had best remember it voice. “These people have been kind to me. I pray you, don’t go trampling their poultry.”

Or their snapdragon beds, he thought, glancing over at the snow-covered piles of raised earth where the beautiful blooming flowers that were Vara Balnir’s pride and joy would burst forth in a few short months. He heard Jorum and Jarim follow him out from the barn, but did not glance behind him, instead regarding the mounted knight, fully clad in—

“Armor!” Arthas gasped. “What’s happened?”

“I’ll explain on the way,” Uther said grimly. “I’ll send someone back for your horse, Prince Arthas. Steadfast can travel faster even with two.” He reached down, a large hand closing on Arthas’s arm, and swung the boy up in front of him as if he weighed nothing at all. Vara had come out of the house at the sound of a horse approaching at full gallop. She was wiping her hands off on a towel, and had a smudge of flour on her nose. Her blue eyes were wide, and she looked over at her husband worriedly. Uther nodded politely to her.

“We’ll discuss this later,” Uther said. “Ma’am.” He touched his forehead with a mailed hand in courteous salute, then kicked his horse Steadfast—armored as his rider was—and the beast leaped into action.

Uther’s arm was like a band of steel around Arthas’s midsection. Fear bubbled up inside the boy but he pushed it down even as he pushed on Uther’s arm. “I know how to ride,” he said, his petulance covering up his worry. “Tell me what is going on.”

“A rider from Southshore has come and gone. He brings ill news. A few days ago, hundreds of small boats filled with refugees from Stormwind landed on our shores,” Uther said. He did not remove his arm. Arthas gave up that particular struggle and craned his neck, listening intently, his sea-green eyes wide and fastened on Uther’s grim face. “Stormwind has fallen.”

“What? Stormwind? How? To who? What—”

“We’ll find all that out shortly. The survivors, including Prince Varian, are being led by Stormwind’s onetime Champion, Lord Anduin Lothar. He, Prince Varian, and others will be coming to Capital City in a few days. Lothar has warned us he bears alarming news—obvious enough if something has destroyed Stormwind. I was sent to find you and bring you back. You’ve no business playing with the common folk at this moment.”

Stunned, Arthas turned and faced forward again, his hands gripping Steadfast’s mane. Stormwind! He had never been there, but had heard tales about it. It was a mighty place, with great stone walls and beautiful buildings. It had been built with sturdiness in mind, to withstand the buffeting of the fierce winds from which it had taken its name. To think that it had fallen—who or what could be strong enough to take such a city?

“How many people came with them?” he asked, pitching his voice louder than he really wished to in order to be heard over the drumming of the horse’s hooves as they headed back toward the city.

“Unknown. Not a small number, that much is certain. The messenger said it was everyone who had survived.”

Survived what?

“And Prince Varian?” He’d heard of Varian all his life, of course, just as he knew all the names of the neighboring kings, queens, princes, and princesses. Suddenly his eyes widened. Uther had mentioned Varian—but not the prince’s father, King Llane—

“Will soon become King Varian. King Llane fell with Stormwind.”

This news of a single tragedy hit Arthas harder somehow than the thought of thousands of people suddenly rendered homeless. Arthas’s own family was close-knit—he, his sister, Calia, his mother, Queen Lianne, and of course King Terenas. He’d seen how some rulers behaved with their families, and knew that his was remarkable in the degree of closeness. To have lost your city, your way of life, and your father—

“Poor Varian,” he said, quick tears of sympathy coming to his eyes.

Uther patted his shoulder awkwardly. “Aye,” he said. “It is a dark day for the boy.”

Arthas shivered suddenly, and not from the cold of a bright winter’s day. The beautiful afternoon, with its blue sky and softly curving snow-draped landscape, had suddenly darkened for him.

A few days later, Arthas was standing up on the castle’s ramparts, keeping Falric, one of the guards, company and handing him a steaming hot mug of tea. Such a visit, like the ones Arthas paid to the Balnir family and the castle’s scullery maids and valets and blacksmiths and indeed nearly every underling on the royal grounds, was not unusual. Terenas always sighed, but Arthas knew that no one was ever punished for speaking with him, and indeed he sometimes wondered if his father secretly approved.

Falric smiled gratefully and bowed deeply in genuine respect, pulling off his gauntlets so the mug would warm his cold hands. Snow threatened, and the sky was a pale gray, but thus far the weather was clear. Arthas leaned against the wall, resting his chin on his folded arms. He looked out over the rolling white hills of Tirisfal, down the road that led through Silverpine Forest to Southshore. The road along which Anduin Lothar, the mage Khadgar, and Prince Varian would be traveling.

“Any sign of them?”

“Nay, Your Highness,” Falric answered, sipping the hot beverage. “It could be today, tomorrow, or the day after. If you’re hoping to catch a glimpse, sir, you may be waiting awhile.”

Arthas shot him a grin, his eyes crinkling with mirth. “Better than lessons,” he said.

“Well, sir, you’d know that better than I would,” Falric said diplomatically, clearly fighting the impulse to grin back.

While the guard finished the tea, Arthas sighed and looked back down the road as he had a dozen times before. This had been exciting at first, but now he was becoming bored. He wanted to go back and find out how Brightmane’s foal was, and began wondering how difficult it would be to slip away for a few hours and not be missed. Falric was right. Lothar and Varian might still be a few days away if—

Arthas blinked. He slowly lifted his chin from his hands and narrowed his eyes.

“They’re coming!” he cried, pointing.

Falric was at his side immediately, the mug forgotten. He nodded.

“Sharp eyes, Prince Arthas! Marwyn!” he called. Another soldier snapped to attention. “Go tell the king that Lothar and Varian are on their way. They should be here within the hour.”

“Aye, captain,” the younger man said, saluting.

“I’ll do it! I’ll go!” said Arthas, already moving as he spoke. Marwyn hesitated, glancing back at his superior officer, but Arthas was determined to beat him. He raced down the steps, slipping on the ice and having to jump the rest of the way, and ran through the courtyard, skidding to a halt as he approached the throne room and barely remembering to compose himself. Today was when Terenas met with representatives of the populace, to listen to their concerns and do what he could to assist them.

Arthas flipped back the hood of his beautifully embroidered red runecloth cape. He took a deep breath, letting it escape his lips as soft mist, and nodded as he approached the two guards, who saluted sharply and turned to push open the doors for him.

The throne room was significantly warmer than the outside courtyard, even though it was a large chamber formed of marble and stone with a high domed ceiling. Even on overcast days such as this one, the octagonal window at the apex of the dome let in plenty of natural light. Torches in their sconces burned steadily on the walls, adding both warmth and an orange tint to the room. An intricate design of circles enclosing the seal of Lordaeron graced the floor, hidden now by the gathering of people respectfully awaiting their turn to address their liege.

Seated in the jeweled throne on a tiered dais was King Terenas II. His fair hair was touched with gray only at the temples, and his face was slightly lined, with more smile lines than the creased frowns that etched their marks on souls as well as visages. He wore a beautifully tailored robe in hues of blue and purple, wrought with gleaming gold embroidery that caught the torchlight and glinted off his crown. Terenas leaned forward slightly, engrossed in what the man who stood before him—a lesser noble whose name Arthas couldn’t recall at the moment—was saying. His eyes, blue-green and intent, were focused on the man.

For a moment, knowing whose coming he was about to announce, Arthas simply stood looking at his father. He, like Varian, was the son of a king, a prince of the blood. But Varian had no father, not anymore, and Arthas felt a lump rise in his throat at the thought of seeing that throne empty, of hearing the ancient song of coronation sung for him.

By the Light, please let that day be a long, long time away.

Perhaps feeling the intensity of his son’s gaze, Terenas glanced over at the door. His eyes crinkled in a smile for a moment, then he returned his attention to the petitioner.

Arthas cleared his throat and stepped forward. “Pardon the interruption. Father, they’re coming. I saw them! They should be here within the hour.”

Terenas sobered slightly. He knew who “they” were. He nodded. “Thank you, my son.”

Those assembled looked at one another; most of them, too, knew who “they” were and they moved as if to end the meeting. Terenas held up a hand. “Nay. The weather holds and the road is clear. They will arrive when they do, and not a moment before. Until then, let us continue.” He smiled ruefully. “I have a feeling that once they come, audiences such as this will need to be tabled. Let us finish as much business as we can before that moment.”

Arthas looked at his father with pride. This was why people loved Terenas so much—and why the king usually turned a blind eye to his son’s “adventuring” among the common folk. Terenas cared deeply about the people he ruled, and had instilled that sentiment in his son.

“Shall I ride out to meet them, Father?”

Terenas scrutinized his son for a moment, then shook his fair head. “No. I think it best if you do not attend this meeting.”

Arthas felt like he’d been struck. Not attend? He was nine years old! Something very bad had happened to an important ally, and a boy not much older than he had been rendered fatherless by it. He felt a sudden flash of anger. Why did his father insist on sheltering him so? Why was he not allowed to attend important meetings?

He bit back the retort that would have sprung to his lips had he been alone with Terenas. It would not do to argue with his father here, in front of all these people. Even if he was totally and completely in the right on this. He took a deep breath, bowed, and left.

An hour later, Arthas Menethil was safely ensconced in one of the many balconies that overlooked the throne room. He grinned to himself; he was still small enough to hide under the seats if anyone poked their nose in for a quick perusal. He fidgeted slightly; another year or two and he wouldn’t be able to do this.

But in a year or two, surely Father will understand that I deserve to be present at such events, and I won’t have to hide.

The thought pleased him. He rolled up his cloak and used it as a pillow while he waited. The room was warm from braziers, torches, and the heat of many bodies in a small space. The heat and the soothing murmur of voices in normal discussion lulled him, and he almost fell asleep.

“Your Majesty.”

The voice, powerful, resonant, and strong, ****ed Arthas awake.

“I am Anduin Lothar, a knight of Stormwind.”

They were here! Lord Anduin Lothar, the onetime Champion of Stormwind…Arthas edged out from under the seat and rose carefully, making sure he was hidden behind the blue curtain that draped the box, and peeked out.

Lothar looked every inch the warrior, Arthas thought as he regarded the man. Tall, powerfully built, he wore heavy armor with an ease that indicated he was well accustomed to its weight. Although his upper lip and jaw sported a thick mustache and short beard, his head was almost bald; what hair he had left had been tied back in a small ponytail. Beside him stood an old man in violet robes.

Arthas’s gaze fell on the boy who could only be Prince Varian Wrynn. Tall, slender yet but with broad shoulders that promised the slim frame would one day fill out, he looked pale and exhausted. Arthas winced as he regarded the youth, a few years older than he, looking lost, alone, and frightened. When addressed, Varian recovered and gave the polite requisite replies. Terenas was an old hand at knowing how to make people feel comfortable. Quickly he dismissed all but a few courtiers and guards and rose from his throne to greet the visitors.

“Please, be seated,” he said, choosing not to sit in the glorious throne as was his right but instead perching on the top stair of the dais. He drew Varian down beside him in a fatherly gesture. Arthas smiled.

Hidden away, the young prince of Lordaeron watched and listened closely, and the voices that floated up to him spoke words that sounded almost fanciful. Yet as he regarded this mighty warrior of Stormwind—and even more, as he studied the wan visage of the future king of such a magnificent realm—Arthas realized with a creeping feeling that none of this was fantasy; all of it was deathly real, and it was terrifying.

The men gathered spoke of creatures called “orcs” that had somehow infested Azeroth. Huge, green, with tusks for teeth and lusting for blood, they had formed a “horde” that flowed like a seemingly unstoppable tide—“Enough to cover the land from shore to shore,” Lothar said direly. It was these monsters that had attacked Stormwind and made refugees—or corpses, Arthas realized—of its denizens. Things got heated when some courtier or other clearly didn’t believe Lothar. Lothar’s temper rose, but Terenas defused the situation and brought the meeting to a close. “I will summon my neighboring kings,” he said. “These events concern us all. Your Majesty, I offer you my home and my protection for as long as you shall need it.”

Arthas smiled. Varian was going to stay here, in the palace, with him. It would be nice to have another noble boy to play with. He got along well enough with Calia, who was two years his elder, but, well, she was a girl, and while he was fond of Jarim, he knew that their opportunities to play together were perforce limited. Varian, however, was a prince of the blood, just like Arthas, and they could spar together, and ride, and go exploring—

“You’re telling us to prepare for war.” His father’s voice cut in on his thoughts with brutal efficiency, and Arthas’s mood grew somber again.

“Yes,” Lothar replied. “A war for the very survival of our race.”

Arthas swallowed hard, then left the viewing box as silently as he had come.

As Arthas had expected, a short time later Prince Varian was shown into the guest quarters. Terenas himself accompanied the boy, resting a hand gently on the youth’s shoulder. If he was surprised to see his son waiting in the guest quarters, he did not show it.

“Arthas. This is Prince Varian Wrynn, future king of Stormwind.”

Arthas bowed to his equal. “Your Highness,” he said formally, “I bid you welcome to Lordaeron. I only wish the circumstances were happier.”

Varian returned the bow gracefully. “As I told King Terenas, I am grateful for your support and friendship during these difficult times.”

His voice was stiff, strained, weary. Arthas took in the cape, tunic, and breeches, made of runecloth and mageweave and beautifully embroidered. It looked as though Varian had been wearing them for half his life, so dirty were they. His face had clearly been scrubbed, but there were traces of dirt at his temples and beneath his nails.

“I will send up some servants shortly with some food and towels, hot water and a tub, so that you may refresh yourself, Prince Varian.” Terenas continued to use the boy’s title; that would wear off with time, but Arthas understood why the king emphasized it now. Varian needed to keep hearing that he was still respected, still royal, when he had lost absolutely everything but his life. Varian pressed his lips together and nodded.

“Thank you,” he managed.

“Arthas, I leave him in your care.” Terenas squeezed Varian’s shoulder reassuringly, then departed, closing the door.

The two boys stared at each other. Arthas’s mind was a total blank. The silence stretched uncomfortably. Finally Arthas blurted, “I’m sorry about your father.”

Varian winced and turned away, walking toward the huge windows that overlooked Lordamere Lake. The snow that had been threatening all morning was finally coming, drifting softly downward to cover the land with a silent blanket. It was too bad—on a clear day, you could see all the way to Fenris Keep. “Thank you.”

“I’m sure he died fighting nobly and gave as good as he got.”

“He was assassinated.” Varian’s voice was blunt and emotionless. Arthas whirled to look at him, shocked. His features, in profile to Arthas now and lit by the cold light of a winter’s day, were unnaturally composed. Only his eyes, bloodshot and brown and filled with pain, seemed alive. “A trusted friend managed to get him to speak with her alone. Then she killed him. Stabbed him right in the heart.”

Arthas stared. Death in glorious battle was difficult enough to handle, but this—

Impulsively he placed a hand on the other prince’s arm. “I saw a foal being born yesterday,” he said. It sounded inane, but it was the first thing that sprang to his mind and he spoke earnestly. “When the weather lets up, I’ll take you to see him. He’s the most amazing thing.”

Varian turned toward him and gazed at him for a long moment. Emotions flitted across his face—offense, disbelief, gratitude, yearning, understanding. Suddenly the brown eyes filled with tears and Varian looked away. He folded his arms and hunched in on himself, his shoulders shaking with sobs he did his best to muffle. They came out anyway, harsh, racking sounds of mourning for a father, a kingdom, a way of life that he probably hadn’t been able to grieve until this precise minute. Arthas squeezed his arm and felt it rigid as stone beneath his fingers.

“I hate winter,” Varian sobbed, and the depth of the hurt conveyed by those three simple words, a seeming non sequitor, humbled Arthas. Unable to watch such raw pain, yet powerless to do anything about it, he dropped his hand, turned away, and stared out the window.

Outside, the snow continued to fall.
Arthas was frustrated.

He thought when word had come about the orcs that he’d finally begin serious training, perhaps alongside his new best friend, Varian. Instead, exactly the opposite happened. The war against the Horde resulted in everyone who could swing a sword joining the armed forces, right down to the master blacksmith. Varian took pity on his younger counterpart and did what he could for a while, until at last he sighed and looked sympathetically at Arthas.

“Arthas, I don’t want to sound mean, but…”

“But I’m terrible.”

Varian grimaced. The two were in the armory hall, sparring with helms, leather chest pieces, and wooden training swords. Varian went to the rack and hung up the training sword, removing his helm as he spoke. “I’m just surprised, because you’re athletic and fast.”

Arthas sulked; he knew Varian well enough to know that the older prince was trying to soften the blow. He followed sullenly, hanging up his own sword and unfastening his protective gear.

“In Stormwind, we start training when we’re quite young. By the time I was your age I had my own set of armor specifically designed for me.”

“Don’t rub it in,” Arthas grumbled.

“Sorry.” Varian grinned at him, and Arthas reluctantly gave a small smile back. Although their first meeting had been laced with grief and awkwardness, Arthas had discovered that Varian had a strong spirit and a generally optimistic outlook. “I just wonder why your father didn’t do the same for you.”

Arthas knew. “He’s trying to protect me.”

Varian sobered as he hung up his leather chest piece. “My father tried to protect me, too. Didn’t work. The realities of life have a way of intruding.” He looked at Arthas. “I’m trained to fight. I’m not trained to teach fighting. I might hurt you.”

Arthas flushed. No suggestion that Arthas might hurt him. Varian seemed to see that he was only digging himself deeper into a hole with the younger boy and clapped him on the shoulder. “Tell you what. When the war’s over, and a proper trainer can be spared again, I’ll come with you to talk to King Terenas. I’m sure you’ll be handing me my rear in no time.”

The war eventually did end, and the Alliance was triumphant. The leader of the Horde, the once-mighty Orgrim Doomhammer, had been brought back to Capital City in chains. It had made a big impression on both Arthas and Varian, to see the powerful orc paraded through Lordaeron. Turalyon, the young paladin lieutenant who had defeated Doomhammer after the orc had slain the noble Anduin Lothar, had shown mercy in choosing to spare the beast; Terenas, who was at heart a kindly man, continued in that fashion by forbidding attacks on the creature. Jeers, boos, yes—seeing the orc who had terrorized them for so long now powerless, an object of scorn and derision, heartened morale. But Orgrim Doomhammer would not be harmed while in his care.

It was the only time Arthas had seen Varian’s face ugly with hate, and he supposed he could not blame the other boy. If orcs had murdered Terenas and Uther, he supposed he’d want to spit on the ugly green things, too. “He should be killed,” Varian growled, his eyes angry as they watched from the parapets as Doomhammer was marched toward the palace. “And I wish I could be the one to do it.”

“He’s going to the Undercity,” said Arthas. The ancient royal crypts, dungeons, sewers, and twining alleys deep below the palace had somehow gotten that nickname, as if the place was simply another destination. Dark, dank, filthy, the Undercity was intended only for prisoners or the dead, but the poorest of the poor in the land somehow always seemed to find their way in. If one was homeless, it was better than freezing in the elements, and if one needed something…not entirely legal, even Arthas understood that that was where you went to get it. Now and then the guards would go down and make a sweep of the place in a desperate and ultimately futile attempt to clean it out.

“No one ever gets out from the Undercity,” Arthas reassured his friend. “He’ll die in captivity.”

“Too good for him,” Varian said. “Turalyon should have killed him when he had the chance.”

Varian’s words were prophetic. The great orcish leader had only appeared to be humbled by the scorn and hatred heaped upon him. It turned out he was far from broken. Lured by his dispiritedness, or so Arthas gleaned by eavesdropping, the guards had grown lax in their care of him. No one was quite sure how Orgrim Doomhammer’s escape had been engineered, because no one survived to report on it—every guard he encountered had gotten his neck broken. But there was a trail of bodies, that of guards, indigents, and criminals—Doomhammer did not discriminate—leading from the wide-open cell through the Undercity to the single escape route—the foul-smelling sewers. Doomhammer was captured again shortly thereafter, and this time placed in the internment camps. When he escaped from there, too, the Alliance collectively held its breath, waiting for a renewed attack. None came. Either Doomhammer was finally dead, or they had shattered his fighting spirit after all.

Two years had come and gone, and now it looked like the Dark Portal through which the Horde had entered Azeroth the first time—the portal that the Alliance had shut down at the end of the Second War—was going to be reopened. Or had already been reopened, Arthas wasn’t sure which, because nobody apparently seemed to want to bother to tell him anything. Even though he was going to become king one day.

It was a beautiful day, sunny and clear and warm. Part of him wanted to be outside with his new horse, whom he had named Invincible—the same foal he had seen being born on that bitter winter day two years ago. Maybe he’d do that later. But for now, his footsteps took him to the armory, where he and Varian had sparred and Varian had embarrassed him. The slight was unintended, to be sure, but it stung all the same.

Two years.

Arthas walked over to the rack of wooden training swords and took one down. At eleven, he had had what his governess called a “growth spurt”—at least she’d called it that the last time he had seen her, when she wept and hugged him and declared him “a proper young man now” and no longer in need of a governess. The little sword he had trained with at nine was a child’s sword. He was indeed a proper young man, standing at five foot eight and likely to grow even taller if his heritage was any indication. He hefted the sword, swinging it this way and that, and suddenly grinned.

He advanced on one of the old suits of armor, gripping the sword firmly. “Hoy!” he called, wishing it was one of the disgusting green monsters that had been such a thorn in his father’s side for so long. He drew himself up to his full height, and lifted the tip of the sword to the suit of armor’s throat.

“Think you to pass here, vile orc? You are in Alliance lands! I will show you mercy this once. Begone and never return!”

Ah, but orcs didn’t understand surrender, or honor. They were just brutes. So it would refuse to kneel and show him respect.

“What? You will not depart? I have given you a chance, but now, we fight!”

And he lunged, as he had seen Varian do. Not directly at the armor, no, the thing was very old and very valuable, but right beside it. Strike, block, duck in under the swing, bring the sword all the way across the body, then whirl and—

He gasped as the sword seemed to take on a life of its own and flew across the room. It landed loudly on the marble floor, sliding along with a grating sound before slowly spinning to a stop.

Dammit! He looked toward the door—and right into the face of Muradin Bronzebeard.

Muradin was the dwarven ambassador to Lordaeron, brother to King Magni Bronzebeard and a great favorite at court for his jovial, no-nonsense approach to everything from fine ale and pastries to matters of state. He had a reputation as an excellent warrior as well, cunning and fierce in battle.

And he had just watched the future king of Lordaeron pretend to fight orcs and throw his sword clear across the room. Arthas felt his whole body break out in a sweat, and he knew his cheeks were pink. He tried to recover.

“Um…Ambassador…I was just…”

The dwarf coughed and looked away. “I’m lookin’ fer yer father, boy. Can ye direct me? This infernal place has too many turns.”

Arthas mutely pointed to a stairway on his left. He watched the dwarf go. No other words were exchanged.

Arthas had never been more embarrassed in his life. Tears of shame burned in his eyes, and he blinked them back hard. Without even bothering to put away the wooden sword, he fled the room.

Ten minutes later, he was free, riding out of the stables and heading east into the hills of Tirisfal Glades. He had two horses with him: a gentle, elderly dapple-gray gelding called Trueheart upon which he was mounted and, on a training lead, the two-year-old colt Invincible.

He’d felt the bond between them from the moment they had locked eyes, moments after the foal’s birth. Arthas had known then that this would be his steed, his friend, the great horse with a great heart who would be as much a part of him as—no, more than—his armor or weapons. Horses from good stock such as this one could live twenty years or more if cared for well; this was the mount who would bear Arthas elegantly in ceremony and faithfully on daily rides. He was not a warhorse. Such were a breed apart, used only for specific purposes at specific times. He’d have one when he went into battle. But Invincible would, and indeed already had, become part of his life.

The stallion’s coat, mane, and tail, gray at his birth, had turned white as the snow that had coated the ground on that day. It was a color that was rare even among the Balnir-bred horses, whose “white” coats were really mostly just light gray. Arthas had toyed with names like “Snowfall” or “Starlight,” but in the end, he followed the informal tradition of Lordaeron knights and gave his steed the name of a quality. Uther’s mount was “Steadfast,” Terenas’s “Courageous.”

His was “Invincible.”

Arthas wanted desperately to ride Invincible, but the horsemaster warned that two years old was at least a year too young. “Two’s a baby,” he’d said. “They’re still growing; their bones are still forming. Be patient, Your Highness. Another year isn’t that long to wait for a horse that’ll serve you well for two decades.”

But it was a long time to wait. Too long. Arthas glanced back over his shoulder at the horse, growing impatient with the plodding canter that seemed the most that Trueheart could summon. In contrast with the elderly gelding, the two-year-old moved almost as if floating, with hardly any effort. His ears were *****ed forward, and his nostrils flared as he scented the smells of the glade. His eyes were bright and he seemed to be saying, Come on, Arthas…. It’s what I was born for.

Surely one ride couldn’t hurt. Just a little canter, and then back to the stables as if nothing had happened.

He slowed Trueheart to a walk and tied the reins to a low-slung tree branch. Invincible whickered as Arthas walked up to him. The prince grinned at the velvety softness of the muzzle brushing his palm as he fed the horse a piece of apple. Invincible was used to having a saddle; it was part of the slow and patient breaking process, to get the horse accustomed to having something on its back. But an empty saddle was much different from a live human being. Still, he’d spent a lot of time with the animal. Arthas said a short prayer and then quickly, before Invincible could sidestep out of the way, vaulted onto the horse’s back.

Invincible reared, neighing furiously. Arthas wrapped his hands in the wiry mane and clung like a burr with every inch of his long legs. The horse hopped and bucked, but Arthas held on. He yelped as Invincible tried to scrape him off by running beneath one of the branches, but did not let go.

And then Invincible was galloping.

Or rather, he was flying. Or at least so it seemed to the giddy young prince, who crouched low on the horse’s neck and grinned widely. He’d never been on an animal this fast before, and his heart pounded with excitement. He didn’t even try to control Invincible; it was all he could do to simply hang on. It was glorious, wild, beautiful, everything he’d dreamed of. They would—

Before he even realized what had happened, Arthas was hurtling through the air to land hard on the grassy earth. For a long moment he couldn’t breathe from the impact. Slowly he got to his feet. His body ached, but nothing was broken.

But Invincible was a rapidly disappearing dot in the distance. Arthas swore violently, kicking a hillock and balling his fists. He was in for it now.

Sir Uther the Lightbringer was waiting for him upon his return. Arthas grimaced as he slid off Trueheart and handed the reins to a groomsman.

“Invincible came back a short time ago by himself. He had a nasty cut on his leg, but I’m sure you’ll be glad to know the horsemaster says he’ll be fine.”

Arthas debated lying, telling Uther they’d been spooked and Invincible had fled. But it was obvious from the grass stains on his clothes that he’d fallen, and Uther would never believe that the prince couldn’t stay on gentle old Trueheart, spooked or not.

“You know you were not supposed to ride him yet,” Uther continued inexorably.

Arthas sighed. “I know.”

“Arthas, do you not understand? If you put too much pressure on him at this age he—”

“I get it, all right? I could cripple him. It was just the one time.”

“And that’s all it will be, isn’t it?”

“Yes, sir,” Arthas said, sullenly.

“You missed your lessons. Again.”

Arthas was silent and did not look up at Uther. He was angry, embarrassed, and hurting, and wanted nothing more than a hot bath and some briarthorn tea to ease the pain. His right knee was starting to swell.

“At least you are in time for the prayer session this afternoon.” Uther eyed him up and down. “Though you’ll need to wash up.” Arthas was indeed sweaty and knew he smelled like horse. It was a good smell, he thought. An honest one. “Hurry up. We’ll be assembling in the chapel.”

Arthas wasn’t even sure what the prayer session was focusing on today. He felt vaguely bad about that; the Light was important to both his father and Uther, and he knew that they badly wanted him to be as devout as they were. But while he couldn’t argue with the evidence of his own eyes—the Light was most definitely real; he’d seen priests and the new order of the paladins work true miracles with healing and protection—he’d never felt called to sit and meditate for hours as Uther did, or make frequent references in reverent tones as did his father. It was just…there.

An hour later, scrubbed and changed into an outfit that was simple yet elegant, Arthas hurried to the small family chapel in the royal wing.

It was not a large room, but it was beautiful. It was a miniature version of the traditional chapel style that could be seen in every human town, perhaps a trifle more lavish with regard to the details. The chalice that was shared was finely wrought of gold and inlaid with gems; the table upon which it lay, an antique. Even the benches had comfortable padding, while the common folk had to make do with flat wooden ones.

He realized as he entered quietly that he was the last—and winced as he recalled that several important personages were visiting his father. In addition to the regular attendees—his family, Uther, and Muradin—King Trollbane was present, though he looked even less happy than Arthas to be here. And…someone else. A girl, slender and straight with long blond hair, her back turned to him. Arthas peered at her, curious, and bumped into one of the benches.

He might as well have dropped a plate. Queen Lianne, still a beauty in her early fifties, turned at the sound, smiling affectionately at her son. Her gown was perfectly arranged, her hair pulled back in a golden coif from which no unruly tendril escaped. Calia, fourteen and looking as gawky and coltish as Invincible had been at his birth, shot him a scowl. Evidently, word of his misdeeds had gotten out—or else she was just angry with him at being late. Terenas nodded at him, then returned his eyes to the bishop giving the service. Arthas cringed inwardly at the quiet disapproval in that gaze. Trollbane paid him no mind, and Muradin, too, did not turn.

Arthas slouched down onto one of the benches against the back wall. The bishop began to speak and lifted his hands, limned with a soft, white radiance. Arthas wished the girl would turn a little so he could catch a glimpse of her face. Who was she? Obviously the daughter of a noble or someone else of high rank, else she would not be invited to attend private family services. He thought about who she might be, more interested in discovering her identity than in the words of the service.

“…and His Royal Highness, Arthas Menethil,” intoned the bishop. Arthas ****ed to attention, wondering if he’d missed something important. “May the Light’s blessing be upon him in every thought, word, and deed, so that he may thrive beneath it and grow to serve it as its paladin.” Arthas felt a sudden calming warmth flow through him as the blessing was laid upon him. The stiffness and soreness vanished, leaving him refreshed and at peace. The bishop turned to the queen and the princess. “May the Light shine on Her Royal Majesty, Lianne Menethil, that she—”

Arthas grinned and waited for the bishop to complete the individual blessings. He’d name the girl then. Arthas leaned against the back room of the wall.

“And we humbly request the Light’s blessing on Lady Jaina Proudmoore. May she be blessed with its healing and wisdom, that she—”

Aha! The mystery girl was a mystery no longer. Jaina Proudmoore, a year younger than he, daughter to Admiral Daelin Proudmoore, naval war hero and ruler of Kul Tiras. What did intrigue him was why she was here and—

“—and that her studies at Dalaran go well. We ask that she become a representative of the Light, and that in the role of a mage, she will serve her people well and truly.”

That made sense. She was on her way to Dalaran, the beautiful city of magi not too far from Capital City. Knowing the rigid rules of etiquette and hospitality that were so pervasive in royal and noble circles, she’d be here for a few days before traveling on.

This, he thought, could be fun.

At the end of the service, Arthas, already located near the door, stepped out first. Muradin and Trollbane were the first out, both looking slightly relieved that the service was over. Terenas, Uther, Lianne, Calia, and Jaina followed.

Both his sister and the Proudmoore girl were fair haired and slender. But the resemblance stopped there. Calia was delicately boned, with a face right out of old paintings, pale skinned and soft. Jaina, however, had bright eyes and a lively smile, and she moved like someone who was well accustomed to riding and hiking. She obviously spent a great deal of time out of doors, as her face was tanned with a smattering of sprinkles across her nose.

This, Arthas decided, was a girl who would not mind getting a snowball in the face, or going for a swim on a hot day. Someone, unlike his sister, he could play with.

“Arthas—a word wi’ ye,” came a gruff voice. Arthas turned to see the ambassador peering up at him.

“Of course, sir,” Arthas said, his heart sinking. All he wanted to do was talk to this new friend—he was already sure they would get along famously—and Muradin probably wanted to scold him again for the embarrassing display earlier in the armory. At least the dwarf was discreet enough to walk a few paces away.

He turned to face the prince, stubby thumbs hooked into his belt, gruff face knotted in thought. “Lad,” he said, “I’ll get right tae th’ point. Yer fightin’ form is terrible.”

Again, Arthas felt the blood rush to his face. “I know,” he said, “but Father—”

“Yer father has many things on ’is mind. Dinna ye be saying a thing against ’im.”

Well, what was he supposed to say? “Well I can’t very well teach myself fighting. You saw what happened when I tried.”

“I ken tha’. I’ll teach ye if ye like.”

“You—you will?” Arthas was at first disbelieving, then delighted. The dwarves were renowned for their fighting prowess, among many things. Part of Arthas wondered if Muradin would also teach him how to hold his ale, another thing dwarves were known for, but he decided not to ask that.

“Aye, that’s what I said, wasn’t it? I’ve spoken wi’ yer father, an’ he’s all for it. Been put off long enough as it is. But let’s get one thing straight. I’ll take nae excuses. And I’ll be pushin’ ye right hard. And if at any moment I say tae mesel’, ‘Muradin, ye’re wastin’ yer time,’ I stop. D’ye agree, boy?”

Arthas fought back an incongruous giggle at the thought of someone who stood so much shorter than he calling him “boy,” but bit it back. “Yes, sir,” he said fervently. Muradin nodded and stuck out a large, calloused hand. Arthas shook it. Grinning, he glanced up at his father, who was deep in conversation with Uther. They turned as one to regard him, both pairs of eyes narrowing in speculation, and inwardly Arthas sighed. He knew that look. So much for playing with Jaina—he’d probably not have time to even see her again before she left.

He turned to watch as Calia, her arm around the younger girl’s shoulder, swept Jaina from the room. But right before she disappeared through the doorway, Admiral Proudmoore’s daughter turned her golden head, caught Arthas’s gaze with her own, and smiled.
“I’m very proud of you, Arthas,” said his father. “Stepping up to the responsibility like this.”

In the week that Jaina Proudmoore had been with the Menethil family as an honored guest, “responsibility” had been the watchword. Not only had his training with Muradin begun—and it was every bit as rigorous and demanding as the dwarf had warned, the pain of sore muscles and bruises augmented by the occasional ringing cuff on the ear when Arthas was not paying sufficient attention for Muradin’s liking—but as Arthas had feared, Uther and Terenas also decided it was time that the prince’s training was stepped up in other areas. Arthas would rise before dawn, grab a quick breakfast of bread and cheese, and go on an early ride with Muradin. The ride would end in a hike, and it was the twelve-year-old youth who always ended up shaking and winded. Arthas secretly wondered if the dwarves had such an affinity with stones that the very earth made it easy for them to climb it. Back home, bath, lessons in history, mathematics, and calligraphy. A midday meal, then it was all afternoon in the chapel with Uther, praying, meditating, and discussing the nature of paladins and the rigorous disciplines they must observe. dinner, and then Arthas stumbled into bed to sleep the deep dreamless sleep of the utterly exhausted.

He’d seen Jaina only a few times at dinner, and she and Calia seemed to be thick as thieves. Arthas finally decided enough was enough, and, taking the lessons in history and politics that were being drilled into his head, he approached his father and Uther with the offer to escort their guest, Lady Jaina Proudmoore, to dalaran himself.

He didn’t bother to tell them it was because he wanted to get out of his duties. It pleased Terenas to think of his son as being so responsible, Jaina smiled brightly at the prospect, and it got Arthas exactly what he wanted. Everyone was happy.

And so it was that in early summer, when the flowers were blooming, the woods were full of game, and the sun danced above them in a sky of bright blue, Prince Arthas Menethil was accompanying a brightly smiling, blond, young lady on a journey to the wondrous city of magi.

They’d gotten a little late of a start—one thing Arthas was starting to learn about Jaina Proudmoore was that she was not exactly punctual—but Arthas didn’t mind. He was in no hurry. They weren’t alone, of course. Propriety demanded that Jaina’s lady-in-waiting and a guard or two ride escort. But still, the servants hung back and let the two young nobles become acquainted. They rode for a while, then stopped for a picnic lunch. While they were munching on bread, cheese, and watered wine, one of Arthas’s men came up to him.

“Sir, with your permission, we will make preparations to spend the night in Ambermill. On the morrow, we can push on the rest of the way to Dalaran. We should arrive there by nightfall.”

Arthas shook his head. “No, let’s continue. We can camp overnight in the Hillsbrad area. That will get Lady Jaina to Dalaran by mid-morning tomorrow.” He turned to smile at her.

She smiled back, though he caught a hint of disappointment in her eyes.

“Are you sure, sir? We’ve planned on accepting the hospitality of the locals, not subjecting the lady to sleeping out in the open.”

“It’s fine, Kayvan,” Jaina spoke up. “I’m not a fragile little figurine.”

Arthas’s smile widened into a grin.

He hoped she’d feel that way in a few hours.

While the servants set up camp, Arthas and Jaina went exploring. They scrambled up a hill that gave them an unparalleled view. To the west, they could see the little farming community of Ambermill and even the distant spires of Baron Silverlaine’s keep. To the east, they could almost make out Dalaran itself, and more clearly, the internment camp to its south. Since the end of the Second War, the orcs had been rounded up and placed into these camps. It was more merciful than simply slaughtering them on sight, Terenas had explained to Arthas. And besides, the orcs seemed to be suffering from a strange malaise. Most of the time when humans stumbled upon them, or hunted them, they fought only halfheartedly and went into internment peacefully. There were several camps just like this one.

They had a rustic meal of roasted rabbit on a spit and retired shortly after dark. Once he was assured that everyone was asleep, Arthas threw a tunic over his breeches and quickly tugged on his boots. As an afterthought, he took one of his daggers and fastened it to his belt, then crept over to Jaina.

“Jaina,” he whispered, “wake up.”

She awoke in silence and unafraid, her eyes glinting in the moonlight. He squatted back as she sat up, putting a finger to his lips. She spoke in a whisper. “Arthas? Is something wrong?”

He grinned. “You up for an adventure?”

She tilted her head. “What sort of an adventure?”

“Trust me.”

Jaina looked at him for a moment, then nodded. “All right.”

She, like all of them, had gone to sleep mostly dressed and simply needed to pull on her boots and cloak. She rose, made a halfhearted attempt to comb her fingers through her blond hair, and nodded.

Jaina followed him as they ascended the same ridge they had explored earlier that day. The climb was more challenging at night, but the moonlight was quite bright and their feet did not slip.

“There’s our destination,” he said, pointing.

Jaina gulped. “The internment camp?”

“Have you ever seen one up close?”

“No, and I don’t want to.”

He frowned, disappointed. “Come on, Jaina. It’s our one chance to get a good look at an orc. Aren’t you curious?”

Her face was hard to read in the moonlight, her eyes dark pools of shadow. “I—they killed Derek. My older brother.”

“One of them killed Varian’s father, too. They’ve killed a lot of people, and that’s why they’re in these camps. It’s the best place for them. A lot of people don’t like the fact that my father is raising taxes to pay for the camps, but—come on and judge for yourself. I missed a chance to get a good look at Doomhammer when he was in the Undercity. I don’t want to miss a chance to see one now.”

She was silent, and at last he sighed. “All right, I’ll take you back.”

“No,” she said, surprising him. “Let’s go.”

Quietly they made their descent. “All right,” Arthas whispered. “When we were up here earlier, I made note of their patrols. It doesn’t look like they’re much different at night, except maybe even more infrequent. With the orcs not having much spirit left in them, I guess the guards think that the chances of escape aren’t that likely.” He smiled at her reassuringly. “Which works out well for us. Other than patrols, someone is always stationed in those two watchtowers. They’re the ones we have to be most careful of, but hopefully they’ll be looking for any disturbance to come from the front rather than behind, since the camp backs up against a sheer wall face. Now, let this fellow here complete his circuit, and we should have ample time to get close to that wall right there and take a good look.”

They waited for the bored-looking guard to meander past, then a few more breaths after that. “Put your hood up,” Arthas said. Both had fair hair, and it would be far too easy for the guards to spot. Jaina looked nervous but excited, and obeyed. Fortunately both she and Arthas wore cloaks of a dark shade. “Ready?” She nodded. “Good. Let’s go!”

They slipped quickly and quietly down the rest of the way. Arthas held her back for a moment until the guard in the tower was looking in the other direction, then motioned to her. They ran forward, making sure their hoods were securely in place, and a few steps later they were pressing against the wall of the camp.

The camps were rough but efficient. They were made of wood, little more than logs fastened together, sharpened at the top and embedded deep into the ground. There were plenty of chinks in the “wall” that a curious boy and girl could look through.

It was hard to see at first, but there were several large shapes inside. Arthas turned his head for a better look. They were orcs all right. Some of them were on the ground, curled up and covered by blankets. Some walked here and there, almost aimlessly, like animals in cages, but lacking a caged beast’s almost palpable yearning for freedom. Over there was what looked like a family unit—a male, a female, and a young one. The female, slighter and shorter than the male, held something small to her chest, and Arthas realized it was an infant.

“Oh,” whispered Jaina beside him. “They look…so sad.”

Arthas snorted, then remembered the need to be quiet. He quickly glanced up at the tower, but the guard had heard nothing. “Sad? Jaina, these brutes destroyed Stormwind. They wanted to render humankind extinct. They killed your brother, for Light’s sake. Don’t waste any pity on them.”

“Still—somehow I didn’t think they would have children,” Jaina continued. “Do you see the one with the baby?”

“Well of course they have children, even rats have children,” Arthas said. He was irritated, but then, maybe he should have expected a reaction like that from an eleven-year-old girl.

“They look harmless enough. Are you sure they belong here?” She turned her face to his, a white oval in the moonlight, seeking his opinion. “It’s expensive to keep them here. Maybe they should be released.”

“Jaina,” he said, keeping his voice soft, “they’re killers. Even if right now they’re lethargic, who can say what would happen if they’re released?”

She sighed softly in the darkness and didn’t answer. Arthas shook his head. He’d seen enough—the guard would be back shortly. “Ready to go back?”

She nodded, stepping away and running quickly with him back toward the hill. Arthas glanced over his shoulder and saw the guard start to turn. He dove toward Jaina, grabbed her around the waist, and shoved her to the ground, hitting hard beside her. “Don’t move,” he said, “the guard is looking right at us!”

Despite the rough fall Jaina was smart enough to freeze at once. Carefully, keeping his face as shadowed as possible, Arthas turned his head to look at the guard. He couldn’t see a face at this distance, but the man’s posture bespoke boredom and weariness. After a long moment, during which Arthas heard his heart thundering in his ears, the guard turned to face the other direction.

“Sorry about that,” Arthas apologized, helping Jaina to her feet. “You all right?”

“Yes,” Jaina said. She grinned at him.

They were back in their respective sleeping areas a few moments later. Arthas looked up at the stars, completely satisfied.

It had been a good day.

Late that next morning, they arrived at Dalaran. Arthas had never been there before, though of course had heard a great deal about it. The magi were a private and mysterious lot—quite powerful, but they kept to themselves save when needed. Arthas remembered when Khadgar had accompanied Anduin Lothar and Prince—now King—Varian Wrynn to speak with Terenas, to warn them of the orcish threat. His presence had lent weight to Anduin’s statements, and with good reason. Magi of the Kirin Tor didn’t get involved in ordinary politics.

Nor did they do the ordinary political maneuvering such as inviting royalty to enjoy their hospitality. It was only because Jaina was coming to study that Arthas and his retinue were permitted admittance. Dalaran was beautiful, even more glorious than Capital City. It seemed almost impossibly clean and bright, as a city based so deeply on magic ought to be. There were several graceful towers reaching skyward, their bases white stone and their apexes violet encircled with gold. Many had radiant, hovering stones dancing around them. Others had windows of stained glass that caught the sunlight. Gardens bloomed, the fragrances from wild, fantastical flowers providing a scent so heady Arthas was almost dizzy. Or maybe it was the constant thrum of magic in the air that caused the sensation.

He felt very ordinary and dingy as they rode into the city, and almost wished they hadn’t slept outside last night. If they had stayed at Ambermill, at least he’d have had a chance to have bathed. But then, he and Jaina wouldn’t have gotten a chance to spy on the internment camp.

He glanced at his companion. Her blue eyes were wide with awe and excitement, her lips slightly parted. She turned to Arthas, those lips curving in a smile.

“Aren’t I lucky to be studying here?”

“Sure,” he said, smiling on her behalf. She was drinking this in like one who had been given water after a week in the desert, but he felt…unwanted. He clearly did not have the affinity for wielding magic as she did.

“I’m told that outsiders aren’t usually welcome,” she said. “I think that’s a shame. It would be nice to see you again.”

She blushed, and for a moment, Arthas forgot about the intimidation the city emanated, and heartily agreed that it would be nice to see Lady Jaina Proudmoore again, too.

Very nice indeed.

“Again, ye little gnome girl! I’ll pull yer pigtails, ye—Ooof!”

The shield caught the taunting dwarf full in the helmed face, and he actually stumbled back a step or two. Arthas slashed with the sword, grinning beneath his own helm as it connected solidly. Then suddenly, he was sailing through the air to land hard on his back. His vision was filled with the image of a looming head with a long beard, and he was barely able to lift his blade in time to parry. With a grunt, he pulled his legs in to his chest and then extended them hard, catching Muradin in the gut. This time it was the dwarf who went hurtling backward. Arthas brought his legs down swiftly and leaped up in a single smooth motion, charging his teacher who was still on the ground, coming at him with blow after blow until Muradin spoke the words that Arthas honestly never thought he’d hear:

“I yield!”

It took everything Arthas had to halt the strike, pulling up and back so abruptly he lost his balance and stumbled. Muradin lay where he was, his chest rising and falling.

Fear squeezed Arthas’s heart. “Muradin? Muradin!”

A hearty chuckle escaped from the thick, bronze beard. “Well done, lad, well done indeed!” He struggled to sit up and Arthas was there, reaching out a hand to help haul the dwarf to his feet. Muradin pumped the hand happily. “So, ye were payin’ attention after all when I taught ye my special trick.”

Relieved and pleased with the praise, Arthas grinned. Some of what Muradin taught him would be repeated, honed, and reinforced in his paladin training. But other things—well, he didn’t think Uther the Lightbringer would know about feet planted firmly in the belly, or the rather handy trick regarding the efficacy of a broken wine bottle. There was fighting and there was fighting, and Muradin Bronzebeard seemed determined that Arthas Menethil would understand all aspects of it.

Arthas was fourteen now, and had been training with Muradin several times a week, save for when the dwarf was away on diplomatic errands. At first, it had gone as both parties had expected—badly. Arthas left the first dozen or so sessions bruised, bloodied, and limping. He had stubbornly refused any offers of healing, insisting that the pain was part of the process. Muradin had approved, and he had shown it by pressing Arthas all the harder. Arthas never complained, not even when he wanted to, not even when Muradin scolded him or pressed the attack long after Arthas was too exhausted to even hold up a shield.

And for that stubborn refusal to whine or to quit, he was rewarded twofold: he learned and learned well, and he won the respect of Muradin Bronzebeard.

“Oh yes, sir, I was paying attention.” Arthas chuckled.

“Good lad, good lad.” Muradin reached up to clap him on the shoulder. “Now, off wi’ ye. Ye’ve taken quite the beating today; ye deserve a bit o’ rest.”

His eyes twinkled as he spoke and Arthas nodded as if agreeing. Today, it was Muradin who had taken the beating. And he seemed as happy as Arthas at the fact. The prince’s heart suddenly swelled with affection toward the dwarf. Though a strict taskmaster, Muradin was someone of whom Arthas had grown terribly fond.

He whistled a little as he strode toward his quarters, but then a sudden outburst froze him in his tracks.

“No, Father! I will not!”

“Calia, I grow tired of this conversation. You have no say in this matter.”

“Papa, please, no!”

Arthas edged a little closer to Calia’s chambers. The door was ajar and he listened, slightly worried. Terenas doted on Calia. What in the world was he asking of her to make her beg with him and use the term of endearment that both she and Arthas had dropped as they grew toward adulthood?

Calia sobbed brokenly. Arthas could take it no longer. He opened the door. “I’m sorry, I couldn’t help but overhear, but—what is wrong?”

Terenas had recently seemed to be acting strangely, and now he looked furious with his sixteen-year-old daughter. “It is no business of yours, Arthas,” Terenas rumbled. “I have told Calia something I wish her to do. She will obey me.”

Calia collapsed on the bed, sobbing. Arthas stared from his father to his sister in utter astonishment. Terenas muttered something and stormed out. Arthas glanced back at Calia, then followed his father.

“Father, please, what’s going on?”

“Do not question me. Calia’s duty is to obey her father.” Terenas marched through a door and into a receiving room. Arthas recognized Lord Daval Prestor, a young noble whom Terenas seemed to hold in very high regard, and a pair of visiting Dalaran wizards he did not know.

“Run along back to your sister, Arthas, and try to calm her. I’ll be with you as soon as I can, I promise.”

With a final glance at the three visitors, Arthas nodded and went back to Calia’s rooms. His older sister had not moved, although her sobs had quieted somewhat. At a total loss, Arthas simply sat beside her on the bed, feeling awkward.

Calia sat up on the bed, her face wet. “I’m sorry you h-had to see that, Arthas, but m-maybe it’s for the best.”

“What did Father want you to do?”

“He wishes me to marry against my will.”

Arthas blinked. “Calie, you’re only sixteen, you’re not even old enough to get married.”

She reached for a handkerchief and dabbed at her swollen eyes. “That’s what I said. But Father said it didn’t matter; we’d formalize the betrothal and on my birthday I’d marry Lord Prestor.”

Arthas’s sea-green eyes widened in comprehension. So that was why Prestor was here….

“Well,” he began awkwardly, “he’s very well connected, and—I guess he’s handsome. Everyone says so. At least he’s not some old man.”

“You don’t understand, Arthas. I don’t care how well connected or handsome or even kind he is. It’s that I don’t have any choice in the matter. I’m—I’m like your horse. I’m a thing, not a person. To be given away as Father sees fit—to seal a political bargain.”

“You—you don’t love Prestor?”

“Love him?” Her blue, bloodshot eyes narrowed in anger. “I barely know him! He’s never taken the slightest…oh, what’s the use? I know that this is common practice among royalty and nobility. That we are pawns. But I just never expected Father—”

Nor had Arthas. He’d honestly never given much thought to marriage for himself or his sister. He was much more interested in training with Muradin and riding Invincible. But Calia was right. It was common among the nobility to make good marriages to ensure their political status.

He’d just never thought his father would sell his daughter like—like a broodmare.

“Calie, I’m really sorry,” he said, and meant it. “Is there someone else? Maybe you could convince Father that there’s a better match—one that makes you happy as well.”

Calia shook her head bitterly. “It’s no use. You heard him. He didn’t ask me, didn’t suggest Lord Prestor—he ordered me.” She looked at him pleadingly. “Arthas, when you are king, promise me—promise me you won’t do that to your children.”

Children? Arthas was in no way ready to think about that. There weren’t even any—well, there was, but he hadn’t thought about her in—

“And when you marry—Papa cannot order you as he orders me. Make sure you care for this girl and—and that she cares for you. Or is at least asked about whom she wants to share her life and her b-bed with.”

She started to weep afresh, but Arthas was too shaken by the revelation that burst upon him. He was only fourteen now, but in four short years, he’d be of age to wed. He suddenly recalled snatches of conversation he’d heard here and there about the future of the Menethil line. His wife would be the mother of kings. He’d have to choose carefully, but also, as Calia had asked, kindly. His parents obviously cared greatly for each other. It was reflected in their smiles and gestures, despite many years of marriage. Arthas wanted that. He wanted a companion, a friend, a—

He frowned. But what if he couldn’t have that? “I’m sorry, Calie, but maybe you’re the lucky one. It might be worse to have the freedom to choose, and know that you couldn’t have what you wanted.”

“I would trade that for being a—a piece of meat in a heartbeat.”

“We each have our duties, I guess,” Arthas said quietly, somberly. “You to marry whomever Father wants, and me to marry well for the kingdom.” He rose abruptly. “I’m sorry, Calie.”

“Arthas—where are you going?”

He didn’t answer, but practically raced through the palace to the stables and, without waiting for a groom, quickly saddled Invincible himself. Arthas knew it was only a temporary solution, but he was fourteen, and a temporary solution was still a solution.

He bent low over Invincible’s back, the white mane whipping his face as the horse galloped, all sleekly coiled muscle and grace. Arthas’s face stretched in a grin. He was never happier than when he rode like this, the two of them merging into one glorious whole. He had waited, his patience sorely tested, for so long to be able to ride the animal he had watched coming into the world, but it had been worth it. They were the perfect team. Invincible wanted nothing from him, asked nothing of him, only seemed to wish to be allowed to escape the confines of the stables as Arthas longed to escape the confines of his royalty. They did so together.

They were coming up on the jump Arthas loved now. To the east of Capital City and close to the Balnir farmstead was a small cluster of hills. Invincible surged, the earth devoured by his pounding hooves, pulling himself upward toward the precipice almost as fast as if they were on level ground. He wheeled and turned along the narrow pathways, sending stones scattering with his hooves, his heart and Arthas’s both racing in excitement. Then Arthas guided the stallion to the left, over an embankment—a shortcut to the Balnir property. Invincible did not hesitate, had not hesitated even the first time that Arthas had asked him to leap. He gathered himself and launched forward, and for a glorious, heart-stopping moment, horse and rider were airborne. Then they landed securely on soft, springy grass, and were off again.

“As you can see, Your Highness,” said Lieutenant General Aedelas Blackmoore, “the taxes have been put to good use. Every precaution has been taken in the operation of this facility. In fact, security is so tight we’ve been able to stage gladiatorial combat here.”

“So I’ve heard,” said Arthas, as he walked with the commander of the internment camps on a tour of the grounds. Durnholde, not an internment camp itself, but the nerve center of all of the others, was huge, and indeed had almost a festival air about it. It was a crisp but bright autumn day, and the breeze caused the blue and white banners that flew over the keep to snap energetically. The wind stirred Blackmoore’s long raven hair and tugged at Arthas’s cloak as they strolled along the ramparts.

“And so you shall also see,” Blackmoore promised, giving his prince an ingratiating grin.

It had been Arthas’s idea for a surprise inspection. Terenas had praised Arthas for his initiative and compassion. “It’s only right, Father,” Arthas had said, and by and large he meant it, although his primary reason for the suggestion was to satisfy his curiosity about the pet orc the lieutenant general kept. “We should make sure the money is going into the camps and not Blackmoore’s pocket. We can ascertain if he is taking proper care of the gladiatorial participants—and also, make sure he is not walking the path of his father.”

Blackmoore’s father, General Aedelyn Blackmoore, had been a notorious traitor, tried and convicted of selling state secrets. While his crimes had taken place long ago, when his son had been but a child, the stain had dogged Aedelas throughout his military career. It was only his record of victory in battles, and particular ferocity in fighting the orcs, that had enabled the current Blackmoore to rise in the ranks. Still, Arthas could detect the smell of liquor on the man’s breath, even at this hour of the morning. He suspected that particular piece of information would not be news to Terenas, but he’d make sure he told his father anyway.

Arthas looked down, feigning interest in watching the dozens of guards who stood at rigid attention. He wondered if they were that attentive when their future king wasn’t watching them.

“I look forward to the bout today,” he said. “Will I be able to watch your Thrall in action? I’ve heard quite a bit about him.”

Blackmoore grinned, his neatly trimmed goatee parting to reveal white teeth. “He was not scheduled to fight today, but for you, Your Highness, I shall pair him up against the worthiest foes available.”

Two hours later, the tour was complete, and Arthas shared a delicious meal with Blackmoore and a younger man named Lord Karramyn Langston, whom Blackmoore introduced as “my protégé.” Arthas took an instinctive dislike to Langston, noting the man’s soft hands and languid demeanor. At least Blackmoore had fought in battle for his title; this boy—Arthas thought of him as a boy, although in truth Langston was older than Arthas’s seventeen years—had been handed everything on a platter.

Well, so have I, he thought, but he also knew what sacrifices a king would be expected to make. Langston looked like he’d never denied himself a thing in his life. Nor did he deny himself now, helping himself to the choicest cuts of meat, the most lavish pastries, and more than one glass of wine to wash it down with. Blackmoore, in contrast, ate sparingly, though he had more alcohol than Langston.

Arthas’s dislike of the pair was completed when their serving girl entered and Blackmoore reached to touch her in a proprietary manner. The girl, golden-haired and simply clad, with a face that needed no artifice to be beautiful, smiled as if she enjoyed it, but Arthas caught a quick flash of unhappiness in her blue eyes.

“This is Taretha Foxton,” Blackmoore said, one hand still caressing the girl’s arm as she gathered the plates. “Daughter of my personal servant, Tammis, whom I’m sure you’ll see later.”

Arthas gave the girl his most winning smile. She reminded him a bit of Jaina—her hair brightened by the sun, her skin tanned. She returned the smile fleetingly, then demurely looked away as she gathered the plates, dropping a quick curtsey before leaving.

“You’ll have one like that soon enough, lad,” Blackmoore said, laughing. It took Arthas a second to grasp the meaning and then he blinked, startled. The two men laughed harder, and Blackmoore raised his goblet in a toast.

“To fair-haired girls,” he said, in a purring voice. Arthas looked back at Taretha, thought of Jaina, and forced himself to raise his glass.

An hour later Arthas had forgotten all about Taretha Foxton and his indignation on her behalf. His voice was raw from screaming, his hands hurt from clapping, and he was having the time of his life.

At first, he’d felt a little uncomfortable. The first few combatants in the ring were simple beasts pitted against one another, fighting to the death for no reason other than the enjoyment of the onlookers. “How are they treated prior to this?” Arthas had asked. He was fond of animals; it unsettled him to see them used so.

Langston had opened his mouth, but Blackmoore shushed him with a quick gesture. He had smiled, leaning back in his chaise lounge and snagging a bunch of grapes. “Well of course we want them at their fighting peak,” he said. “So they are captured and treated quite well. And as you can see, the bouts go quickly. If an animal survives and is not able to continue fighting again, we put him down at once, mercifully.”

Arthas hoped the man was not lying to him. A sick feeling in his gut told him Blackmoore probably was, but he ignored it. The feeling vanished when the fighting involved men against the beasts. As he watched, riveted, Blackmoore said, “The men are paid well. They in fact become minor celebrities.”

Not the orc, though. And Arthas knew it, and approved. That’s what he was waiting for—the chance to see Blackmoore’s pet orc, found as an infant and raised to be a fighter in these rings, in combat.

He was not disappointed. Apparently, everything up until now had been a warm-up for the crowd. When the doors creaked open and a huge green shape strode forward, everyone stood, roaring. Somehow Arthas found himself among them.

Thrall was enormous, appearing even larger because he was obviously so much healthier and alert than the other specimens Arthas had seen in the camps. He wore little armor and no helm, and green skin stretched tightly over powerful muscle. Too, he stood straighter than others. The cheering was deafening, and Thrall walked a circle around the ring, lifting his fists, turning his ugly face up to be showered with rose petals usually reserved for holidays.

“I taught him to do that,” Blackmoore said with pride. “It’s an odd thing, really. The crowd cheers for him, yet they come hoping every time he’ll get beaten.”

“Has he ever lost a bout?”

“Never, Your Highness. Nor will he. Yet people keep hoping, and the money keeps flowing.”

Arthas eyed him. “As long as the royal coffers see their proper percentage of your earnings, Lieutenant General, you’ll be permitted to continue the games.” He turned again to the orc, watching him as he completed his circuit. “He…is completely under control, isn’t he?”

“Absolutely,” Blackmoore said immediately. “He was raised by humans and taught to fear and respect us.”

As if he had heard the comment, though he could not possibly have done so over the thundering cries of the crowd, Thrall turned to where Arthas, Blackmoore, and Langston sat watching. He thumped his chest in a salute and then bowed deeply.

“You see? Utterly my creature,” Blackmoore purred. He rose and lifted a flag, waving it, and across the ring a solidly built red-haired man waved another flag. Thrall turned toward the door, gripping the massive battle axe that was his weapon in this bout.

The guards began to raise the door, and before it had even opened fully, a bear the size of Invincible surged forward. Its hackles had risen and it barreled straight for Thrall as if it had been launched from a cannon, its snarl audible even over the roar of the crowd.

Thrall held his ground, stepping aside at the absolute last minute and bringing the huge axe around as if it weighed nothing at all. It tore a great rent in the bear’s side, and the animal roared in maddened pain, whirling and sending blood spattering. Again, the orc stood his ground, resting on the balls of his bare feet until he moved with a speed that belied his size. He met the bear head-on, shouting taunts in a guttural voice in perfect Common, and brought the axe crunching down. The bear’s head was nearly severed from its neck, but it kept running for a few moments before toppling into a quivering heap.

Thrall threw back his head and cried out his victory. The crowd went mad. Arthas stared.

There wasn’t a scratch on the orc, and as far as Arthas could tell, the brute wasn’t even particularly winded.

“That’s just the opener,” Blackmoore said, smiling at Arthas’s reaction. “Next will be three humans attacking him. He’s also hampered by the fact that he’s not to kill them, just defeat them. More a strategic battle than one of brute force, but I confess, there’s something about watching him decapitate a bear in a single blow that always makes me proud.”

Three human gladiators, all large, powerfully muscled men, entered the arena and saluted their opponent and the crowd. Arthas watched as Thrall sized them up and wondered just how smart it was of Blackmoore to make his pet orc so damn good at fighting. If Thrall ever escaped, he could teach those skills to other orcs.

It was possible, despite the increased security. After all, if Orgrim Doomhammer could escape from the Undercity, in the very heart of the palace, Thrall could escape from Durnholde.

The state visit lasted five days. During one of those days, late in the evening, Taretha Foxton came to visit the prince in his private quarters. He was puzzled that his servants did not answer the tentative knock on the door and was even more startled to see the pretty blond girl standing there carrying a tray of delicacies. Her eyes were downcast, but her dress was revealing enough that he didn’t speak immediately.

She dropped a curtsey. “My lord Blackmoore sent me with this offering of things to tempt you,” she said. Color suffused her cheeks. Arthas was confused.

“I—tell your master thank you, although I am not hungry. And I’m wondering what he’s done with my servants.”

“They have been invited to a repast with the other servants,” Taretha explained. She still didn’t look up.

“I see. Well, that’s kind of the lieutenant general; I’m sure the men appreciate it.”

She didn’t move.

“Is there anything else, Taretha?”

The pink in her cheeks deepened, and she lifted her eyes to him. They were calm, resigned. “My lord Blackmoore sent me with this offering of things to tempt you,” she repeated. “Things you might enjoy.”

Understanding burst upon him then. Understanding, and embarrassment, and irritation, and anger. He composed himself with an effort—it was hardly the girl’s fault, indeed, she was the one being ill used.

“Taretha,” he said, “I’ll take the food, with thanks. I need nothing else.”

“Your Highness, I’m afraid he will insist.”

“Tell him I said it’s fine.”

“Sir, you don’t understand. If I come back he—”

He glanced down at the hands holding the tray, at the long hair draped just so. Arthas stepped forward and lifted her trailing hair out of the way, frowning at the brownish-blue fading marks on her wrists and throat.

“I see,” he said. “Come inside, then.” Once she had entered, he closed the door and turned to her.

“Stay for as long as you feel comfortable, then go back to him. In the meantime, I can’t possibly eat all this.” He gestured for her to sit and took a chair opposite her, snagging a small pastry and grinning.

Taretha blinked at him. It took a moment for her to understand what he was saying, and then cautious relief and gratitude spread over her face as she poured the wine. After a little while, she began to respond to his questions with more than a few polite words, and they spent the next few hours talking before they agreed it was time for her to return. As she picked up the tray, she turned to him.

“Your Highness—it pleases me so much to know that the man who will be our next king has such a kind heart. The lady you choose to make your queen will be a very lucky woman.”

He smiled and closed the door behind her, leaning on it for a moment.

The lady he would choose to make his queen. He recalled his conversation with Calia; fortunately for his sister, Terenas had started to have some suspicions about Prestor—nothing that could be proven, but enough for second thoughts.

Arthas was almost of age—a year older than Calia had been when their father had nearly betrothed her to Prestor. He supposed he’d have to start thinking about finding a queen sooner or later.

Tomorrow he would be leaving, and not a minute too soon.

The winter chill was in the air. Autumn’s last glorious days were gone, and the trees, once shades of gold and red and orange, were now bare skeletons against a gray sky. In a few more months, Arthas would reach his nineteenth year and be inducted into the Order of the Silver Hand, and he was more than ready. His training with Muradin had ended a few months ago, and he had now begun sparring with Uther. It was different, but similar. What Muradin had taught was attentiveness and a willingness to win the battle no matter what. The paladins had a more ritualistic way of looking at battle, and focused more on the attitude one brought into the fight than the actual mechanics of swordplay. Arthas found both methods valid, although he was beginning to wonder if he’d ever have the chance to use what he had learned in a true battle.

Normally, he’d be in prayer session now, but his father was off on a diplomatic visit to Stromgarde, and Uther had accompanied him. Which meant that now Arthas had afternoons free for a few days, and he was not about to waste them, even if the weather was less than perfect. He clung easily and familiarly to Invincible as they galloped over the glade, the animal’s stride only slightly slowed by a few inches of snow on the ground. He could see his breath and that of the great white horse as Invincible tossed his head and snorted.

It was starting to snow again now, not the soft fat flakes that drifted lazily down but small, hard crystals that stung. Arthas frowned and pressed on. A little farther, then he would turn back, he told himself. He might even stop at the Balnir farm. It had been a while since he had been there; Jorum and Jarim would likely be interested to see the magnificent horse that the gawky little colt had grown into.

The impulse, having struck, now demanded to be obeyed, and Arthas turned Invincible with a subtle pressure from his left leg. The horse wheeled, obedient and completely in tune with his master’s desires. The snow was picking up, tiny needles digging into his exposed skin, and Arthas pulled the cape up over his head for a little more protection. Invincible shook his head, his skin twitching as it did when he was being annoyed by insects in the summer. He galloped down the path, stretching his neck forward, enjoying the exertion every bit as much as Arthas.

They were coming up on the jump soon, and shortly after that, a warm stable for the steed and a hot mug of tea for his rider before they headed back to the palace. Arthas’s face was starting to become numb with the cold, and his hands in their fine leather gloves weren’t much better. He tightened his chilled hands over the reins, forcing his fingers to bend, and gathered himself as Invincible leaped—no, he reminded himself, flew, they flew over this jump like—

—except they didn’t fly. At the last minute, Arthas felt the hideous sensation of Invincible’s rear hooves slipping on the icy stone, and the horse flailed, neighing, his legs frantically trying to get a secure footing on thin air. Arthas’s throat was suddenly raw, and he realized he was screaming as jagged stone, not smooth snow-encrusted grass, rushed up to meet them with lethal speed. He pulled hard on the reins, as if that could do something, as if anything could do something—

The sound cut through his stupor, and he blinked his way back to consciousness with the bone-chilling shriek of a beast in agony clawing at his brain. He couldn’t move at first, though his body spasmed of its own accord, trying to move toward the awful cries. Finally he was able to sit up. Pain shot through him and he added his own gasp of agony to the hideous cacophony, and he realized he’d probably broken at least one rib, probably more.

The snow had picked up and was coming down hard and heavy now. He could barely see three feet in front of him. He shut out the pain, craning his neck, trying to find—

Invincible. His eye was drawn to movement and the widening pool of crimson that melted the snow, that steamed in the cold.

“No,” Arthas whispered, and struggled to his feet. The world went black around the edges and he almost lost consciousness again, but through sheer will hung on. Slowly, he made his way to the panicked animal, struggling against the pain and the driving wind and snow that threatened to knock him over.

Invincible was churning up the bloodied snow with two powerful, unharmed rear legs and two shattered forelegs. Arthas felt his stomach heave at the sight of the limbs, once so long and straight and clean and powerful, hanging at odd angles as Invincible kept trying and failing to stand. Then the image was mercifully blurred by the snow and the rush of hot tears that spilled down his cheeks.

He slogged toward his horse, sobbing, dropping to his knees beside the maddened animal and trying to do—what? This was no scratch, to be quickly bound so that Invincible could be led to a warm stable and hot mash. Arthas reached for the animal’s head, wanting to touch him, to calm him somehow, but Invincible was manic with agony. And he kept screaming.

Help. There were priests and Sir Uther—maybe they could heal—

Pain greater than physical shot through the youth. The bishop had gone with his father to Stromgarde, as had Uther. There might be a priest in another village, but Arthas didn’t know where, and with the storm—

He shrank back from the animal, covering his ears and closing his eyes, sobbing so that his whole body shook. With the storm, he could never find a healer before Invincible either died of his injuries or froze to death. Arthas wasn’t even sure he could find the Balnir homestead, even though it could not be far. The world was white, everywhere save where the dying horse, who had trusted him enough to leap off an icy embankment, lay churning up a steaming crimson pool.

Arthas knew what he had to do, and he couldn’t do it.

He would never know how long he sat there, weeping, trying to shut out the sight and sound of his beloved horse in agony, until finally Invincible’s struggles slowed. He lay in the snow, his sides heaving, his eyes rolling in torment.

Arthas couldn’t feel his face or limbs, but somehow he managed to move toward the beast. Every breath was agony, and he welcomed the pain. This was his fault. His fault. He took the great head in his lap, and for a brief, merciful moment he wasn’t sitting in the snow with a wounded beast, but sitting in a stable while a broodmare gave birth. For that moment, everything was all just beginning, and not coming to this shocking, sickening, avoidable end.

His tears fell on the horse’s broad cheek. Invincible trembled, his brown eyes wide with now-silent pain. Arthas removed his gloves and ran his hand along the pink-gray muzzle, feeling the warmth of Invincible’s breath against his hands. Then, slowly, he eased the horse’s head from his lap, got to his feet, and fumbled with his warmed hand for his sword. His feet sank in the red puddle of melted snow as he stood over the fallen animal.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry.”

Invincible regarded him calmly, trustingly, as if he somehow understood what was about to happen, and the need for it. It was more than Arthas could bear, and for a moment tears again clouded his vision. He blinked them back hard.

Arthas lifted the sword and brought it straight down.

He did this right, at least; pierced Invincible’s great heart with a single strong blow from arms that should have been too chilled to do so. He felt the sword pierce skin, flesh, scrape against bone, and impale itself into the earth below. Invincible arched once, then shuddered and lay still.

Jorum and Jarim found him there some time later, after the snow had tapered off, curled up tightly against the cooling corpse of a once-glorious animal brimming with life and energy. As the elder man bent to pick him up, Arthas cried out with pain.

“Sorry, lad,” Jorum said, his voice almost unbearably kind. “For hurting you, and for the accident.”

“Yes,” Arthas said weakly, “the accident. He lost his footing…”

“And no wonder in this weather. That storm came on quickly. You’re lucky you’re alive. Come on—we’ll get you inside and send someone to the palace.”

As he shifted in the farmer’s strong grip, Arthas said, “Bury him…here? So I can come visit?”

Balnir exchanged glances with his son, then nodded. “Aye, of course. He was a noble steed.”

Arthas craned his neck to look at the body of the horse he had named Invincible. He would let them all think it was an accident, because he could not bear to tell anyone what he had done.

And he made a vow then and there that if anyone else ever needed protection—that if sacrifices had to be made for the welfare of others—he would do it.

Whatever it takes, he thought.
Summer was in full blaze, and the merciless sun beat down on His Royal Highness Prince Arthas Menethil as he rode through the streets of Stormwind. He was in a foul mood, despite the fact that this was a day that he was supposed to have been looking forward to all his life. The sun glinted off the full plate armor he wore, and Arthas thought he’d bake to death before he reached the cathedral. Sitting atop his new charger only served to remind him that the horse, while powerful, well-trained, and well-bred, was not Invincible, gone for only a few months and bitterly missed. And he found that his mind had suddenly gone blank regarding what he was supposed to do once the ceremony began.

Beside him rode his father, who seemed completely unaware of his son’s irritation. “This has been a day long in coming, my son,” Terenas said, turning to smile at Arthas.

Despite the heat and the weight of the helm he wore, Arthas was glad of it; it concealed his face, and he wasn’t sure he could fake a convincing smile right now. “Indeed it has, Father,” he replied, keeping his voice calm.

It was one of the biggest celebrations Stormwind had ever seen. In addition to Terenas, many other kings, nobility, and famous personages were in attendance, riding like a parade through the city’s white cobbled streets to the massive Cathedral of Light, damaged during the First War but now restored and even more glorious than before.

Arthas’s boyhood friend Varian, king of Stormwind, was now married and a new father. He had opened the palace to all the visiting royalty and their retinues. Sitting with Varian last night, drinking mead and talking, had been the highlight of the trip for Arthas so far. The hurting, traumatized youth of a decade ago had grown into a confident, handsome, centered king. Somewhere along about early morning, after midnight and before dawn, they had gone to the armory, fetched wooden training swords, and gone at each other for a long time, laughing and recounting memories, their prowess only a little the worse for the alcohol they’d consumed. Varian, trained since early childhood, had always been good and now he was better. But so was Arthas, and he gave as good as he got.

But now it was all formality, incredibly hot armor, and a nagging sense that he didn’t deserve the honor that was about to be bestowed upon him.

In a rare moment, Arthas had spoken of his feelings to Uther. The intimidating paladin, who, since Arthas was old enough to remember, had been the very image of rock-solid steadfastness to the Light, had startled the prince with his reply.

“Lad, no one feels ready. No one feels he deserves it. And you know why? Because no one does. It’s grace, pure and simple. We are inherently unworthy, simply because we’re human, and all human beings—aye, and elves, and dwarves, and all the other races—are flawed. But the Light loves us anyway. It loves us for what we sometimes can rise to in rare moments. It loves us for what we can do to help others. And it loves us because we can help it share its message by striving daily to be worthy, even though we understand that we can’t ever truly become so.”

He’d clapped a hand on Arthas’s shoulder, giving him a rare, simple smile. “So stand there today, as I did, feeling that you can’t possibly deserve it or ever be worthy, and know that you’re in the same place every single paladin has ever stood.”

It comforted Arthas a little.

He squared his shoulders, tilted the visor back, and smiled and waved to the crowd that was cheering so happily on this hot summer day. Rose petals were showered upon him, and from somewhere trumpets blared. They had reached the cathedral. Arthas dismounted and a groom led away his charger. Another servant stepped up to take the helm he tugged off. His blond hair was damp with sweat, and he quickly ran a gauntleted hand over it.

Arthas had never been to Stormwind before, and he was impressed by the combination of serenity and power the cathedral radiated. Slowly, he moved up the carpeted carved stairs, grateful for the sudden coolness of the building’s stone interior. The fragrance of the incense was calming and familiar; it was the same as that which his family burned in their small chapel.

There was no giddy throng here now, just silent, respectful rows of prominent personages and clergy. Arthas recognized several faces: Genn Greymane, Thoras Trollbane, Admiral Daelin Proudmoore—

Arthas blinked, then his lips curved into a smile. Jaina! She had certainly grown up in the years since he had last seen her. Not quite a drop-dead beauty, but pretty, the liveliness and intelligence he’d responded to as a boy still radiating from her like a beacon. She caught Arthas’s look and smiled a little in return, inclining her head in respect.

Arthas returned his attention to the altar he approached, but felt a little bit of the trepidation leave his heart. He hoped there would be a chance for him to talk to her after all the formalities were taken care of.

Archbishop Alonsus Faol awaited him at the altar. The archbishop reminded Arthas more of Greatfather Winter than of any of the rulers he had hitherto met. Short and stout, with a long flowing snow-white beard and bright eyes, even in the midst of solemn ceremony Faol radiated warmth and kindliness. Faol waited until Arthas approached him and knelt before him respectfully before opening a large book and speaking.

“In the Light, we gather to empower our brother. In its grace, he will be made anew. In its power, he shall educate the masses. In its strength, he shall combat the shadow. And in its wisdom, he shall lead his brethren to the eternal rewards of paradise.”

On his left, several men—and a few women, Arthas noticed—dressed in flowing white robes stood still and poised. Some held censors, which swayed almost hypnotically. Others bore large candles. One carried an embroidered blue stole. Arthas had been introduced to many of them earlier, but found that their names had gone right out of his head. That was unusual for him—he was genuinely interested in those who worked for him and served under him, and made an effort to get to know all their names.

Archbishop Faol asked the clerics to bestow their blessings upon Arthas. They did, the one who bore the blue stole coming forward to drape it about the prince’s neck and anointing his brow with holy oil.

“By the grace of the Light, may your brethren be healed,” the cleric said.

Faol turned to the men on Arthas’s right. “Knights of the Silver Hand, if you deem this man worthy, place your blessings upon him.”

In contrast to the first group, these men, standing at attention in heavy, gleaming plate armor, were all known to Arthas. They were the original paladins of the Silver Hand, and it was the first time they had assembled since their induction many years past. Uther, of course; Tirion Fordring, aging but still powerful and graceful, now governor of Hearthglen; the six-and-a-half-foot Saidan Dathrohan, and the pious, bushy-bearded Gavinrad. One was missing from their number—Turalyon, right hand to Anduin Lothar in the Second War, who was lost with the company that had ventured through the Dark Portal when Arthas was twelve.

Gavinrad stepped forth, holding an enormous, heavy-looking hammer, its silver head etched with runes and its sturdy haft wrapped in blue leather. He placed the hammer in front of Arthas, then stepped back to stand with his brethren. It was Uther the Lightbringer himself, Arthas’s mentor in the order, who next came forward. In his hands he carried a pair of ceremonial shoulder plates. Uther was the most controlled man Arthas had ever known, and yet his eyes were bright with unshed tears as he placed the armor on Arthas’s broad shoulders. He spoke in a voice that was both powerful and trembling with emotion.

“By the strength of the Light, may your enemies be undone.” His hand lingered a moment on Arthas’s shoulder, then he, too, retreated.

Archbishop Faol smiled at the prince kindly. Arthas met the gaze evenly, no longer worried. He remembered everything now.

“Arise and be recognized,” Faol bade him. Arthas did so.

“Do you, Arthas Menethil, vow to uphold the honor and codes of the Order of the Silver Hand?”

Arthas blinked, momentarily surprised at the lack of his title. Of course, he reasoned, I’m being inducted as a man, not a prince. “I do.”

“Do you vow to walk in the grace of the Light and spread its wisdom to your fellow man?”

“I do.”

“Do you vow to vanquish evil wherever it be found, and protect the innocent with your very life?”

“I d—by my blood and honor, I do.” That was close, he’d almost messed up.

Faol gave him a quick wink of reassurance, then turned to address both the clerics and the paladins. “Brothers and sisters—you who have gathered here to bear witness—raise your hands and let the Light illuminate this man.”

The clerics and paladins all lifted right hands, which were now suffused by a soft, golden glow. They pointed at Arthas, directing the radiance toward him. Arthas’s eyes were wide with wonder, and he waited for the glorious glow to envelop him.

Nothing happened.

The moment stretched on.

Sweat broke out on Arthas’s brow. What was going wrong? Why wasn’t the Light wrapping itself around him in blessing and benediction?

And then the sunlight streaming in through windows in the ceiling slowly began to move toward the prince standing alone in shining armor, and Arthas exhaled in relief. This had to be what Uther had spoken of. The feeling of unworthiness that Uther assured him all paladins felt simply seemed to drag out the moment. The words Uther had spoken came back to him: No one feels he deserves it…its grace, pure and simple…but the Light loves us anyway.

Now it shone down on him, in him, through him, and he was forced to shut his eyes against the almost blinding radiance. It warmed at first, then seared, and he winced slightly. He felt—scoured. Emptied, scrubbed clean, then filled again, and he felt the Light swell inside him and then fade away to a tolerable level. He blinked and reached for the hammer, the symbol of the order. As his hand closed about the haft, he looked up at Archbishop Faol, whose benign smile widened.

“Arise, Arthas Menethil, paladin defender of Lordaeron. Welcome to the Order of the Silver Hand.”

Arthas couldn’t help it. He grinned as he grasped the enormous hammer, so large that for a brief moment he thought he wouldn’t be able to lift it, and swung it upward with a whoop. The Light, he realized, made the hammer seem to weigh less in his hands. At his exultant cry, the cathedral suddenly began to ring with the sound of answering cheers and applause. Arthas found himself roughly embraced by his new brothers and sisters, and then all remnants of formality were torn away as his father, Varian, and others crowded the altar area. Much laughter was had as Varian tried to clap him on the shoulder, only to have his hand sting when he struck the hard metal of the shoulder plates. And then somehow Arthas was turned around and stared into the blue-eyed, smiling face of Lady Jaina Proudmoore.

They were mere inches apart, jostled and pressed together by the throng that had somehow sprung up around the newest member of the Order of the Silver Hand, and Arthas wasn’t about to let the unique opportunity slip away. Almost at once his left arm slipped around her trim waist and he pulled her to him. She looked startled, but not displeased, as he hugged her. She returned the hug, laughing against his chest for a moment, then pulling back, still smiling.

For a moment, the happy sounds of a celebrating crowd on a hot summer afternoon went away, and all Arthas could see was this suntanned, smiling girl. Could he kiss her? Should he kiss her? He certainly wanted to. But even as he debated she disentangled herself and stepped back, and her fair-haired girlish form was replaced by another fair-haired, girlish form. Calia laughed and hugged her brother tightly.

“We’re all so proud of you, Arthas,” she exclaimed. He grinned and returned the embrace, happy to hear his sister’s approval, sorry that he’d not gone ahead and kissed the admiral’s daughter. “You will make a wonderful paladin, I’m sure of it.”

“Well done, my son,” Terenas said. “I am a proud father today.”

Arthas’s eyes narrowed. Today? What was meant by that? Was his father not proud of him on other days? He was suddenly angry, and not certain why or with whom. The Light, delaying its approval; Jaina backing away from him right at the moment when he could have kissed her; Terenas and his comment.

He forced a smile and began to shoulder his way through the crowd. He’d had enough of this press of people, few of whom really knew him, none of whom understood.

Arthas was nineteen. At the same age, Varian had been king for a full year. He was of an age to do whatever he wanted to, and now had the blessing of the Silver Hand to guide him. He didn’t want to simply linger at the palace of Lordaeron, or do boring state visits. He wanted to do something…fun. Something that his power, his position, his abilities would earn him.

And he knew exactly what he wanted that something to be.



It was exactly the sort of day Jaina Proudmoore didn’t like—sullen, stormy, and bitterly cold. While the ocean breezes always made Theramore feel cool, even in the hot summer months, the chill of the wind and rain that now pummeled the city cut to the bone. The ocean churned unhappily, the sky above it gray and menacing. It showed no signs of letting up. Outside, training fields turned to mud, travelers sought the shelter of the inn, and Dr. VanHowzen would need to watch the injured in his care for signs of illness brought on by the sudden cold and wetness. Jaina’s guards stood in the downpour without complaint. No doubt they were miserable. Jaina ordered one of her attendants to take the pot of tea she had just brewed for her and her chancellor down to the stalwart guards enduring their duty. She could wait for a second pot to be ready.

Thunder rumbled and there was a flash of lightning. Jaina, snug in her tower surrounded by the books and papers she so loved, shivered and drew her cloak about her more closely, then turned to one who was doubtless even more uncomfortable than she.

Magna Aegwynn, former Guardian of Tirisfal, mother to the great Magus Medivh, once the most powerful woman in the world, sat in a chair drawn close to the fire, sipping a cup of tea. Her gnarled hands closed about the cup, seeking its warmth. Her long hair, white as freshly fallen snow, was loose about her shoulders. She looked up as Jaina approached and sat in the chair across from her. Her green eyes, a deep, knowing emerald, missed nothing.

“You’re thinking about him.”

Jaina scowled and looked into the fire, trying to distract herself with the dancing flames. “I didn’t know being a Guardian meant you could read minds.”

“Minds? Pfft. It’s your face and bearing I can read like a primer, child. That furrow in your brow crinkles just so when it’s he who occupies your mind. Besides, you always get in this mood when the weather turns.”

Jaina shivered. “Am I truly so easy to read?”

Aegwynn’s sharp features softened and she patted Jaina’s hand. “Well, I’ve got a thousand years of observation under my belt. I’m a bit better at reading people than most.”

Jaina sighed. “It’s true. When the weather is cold, I do think of him. About what happened. About whether I could have done anything.”

Aegwynn sighed. “A thousand years and I don’t think I’ve ever really been in love. Too much else to worry about. But if it’s any consolation to you—he’s been on my mind, too.”

Jaina blinked, surprised and unsettled by the comment. “You’ve been thinking about Arthas?”

The former Guardian regarded her keenly. “The Lich King. He’s not Arthas, not anymore.”

“I don’t need to be reminded of that,” Jaina said, a touch too sharply. “Why do you—”

“Can’t you feel it?”

Slowly, Jaina nodded. She had tried to chalk it up to the weather and the tensions that always ran high when it was so damp and unpleasant. But Aegwynn was suggesting that there was more to it than that, and Jaina Proudmoore, thirty years of age, ruler of Theramore Isle, knew the old woman was right. Old woman. A smile flickered on her lips as she thought about the words. She herself was well past her own youth, a youth in which Arthas Menethil had played so significant a role.

“Tell me of him,” Aegwynn said, sitting back in her chair. At that moment, one of the servants came with a fresh pot of tea and cookies hot from the oven. Jaina accepted a cup gratefully.

“I’ve told you all I know.”

“No,” Aegwynn retorted. “You told me the facts of what happened. I want you to tell me about him. Arthas Menethil. Because whatever’s going on right now up in Northrend—and yes, I think something is going on—it’s about Arthas, not the Lich King. Not yet at any rate. Besides,” and the old woman grinned, the wrinkles that lined her face overshadowed by the impish, girlish glint in her emerald eyes, “it’s a cold and rainy day. And that’s exactly the sort of day stories were made for.”
Jaina Proudmoore hummed a little as she strode through the gardens of Dalaran. She’d been here for eight years now, and the city never lost its sense of wonder. Everything here emanated magic, and to her it was almost like a scent, a fragrance of everything in bloom, and she inhaled it with a smile.

Of course, some of that “fragrance” was that of actual flowers in bloom; the gardens of this place were as saturated with magic as everything else. She had never seen healthier, more colorful flowers, or eaten more delicious fruits and vegetables than here. And the knowledge! Jaina felt she had learned more in the last eight years than in her entire life—and most of that in the last two, since Archmage Antonidas had formally taken her as his apprentice. Few things contented her more than sitting curled up in the sun with a cold glass of sweet nectar and a pile of books. Of course, some of the rarer parchments needed to be protected from sunlight and spilled nectar, so the next best thing was sitting inside one of the many rooms, wearing gloves so her hands would not damage the fragile paper, carefully perusing something that was older almost than she could comprehend.

But for now, she just wanted to wander in the gardens, feeling the living earth beneath her feet, smelling the incredible scents, and, when hunger gnawed at her stomach, reaching up and plucking a ripe goldenbark apple warm from the sunlight and crunching it happily.

“In Quel’Thalas,” came a smooth, cultured voice, “there are trees that tower over these in a glory of white bark and golden leaves, that all but sing in the evening breezes. I think you would enjoy seeing them someday.”

Jaina turned to offer Prince Kael’thas Sunstrider, son to Anasterian, king of the quel’dorei elves, a smile and a deep curtsey. “Your Highness,” she said. “I wasn’t aware you’d returned. A pleasure. And yes, I’m certain I would.”

Jaina was the daughter, if not of royalty, of nobility and of a ruler. Her father, Admiral Daelin Proudmoore, ruled the city-state of Kul Tiras, and Jaina had grown up accustomed to interaction with nobility. And yet, Prince Kael’thas unnerved her. She wasn’t quite sure what it was. He was handsome, certainly, with that grace and beauty that all elves possessed. Tall, with hair like spun gold that fell halfway down his back, he always looked to her like a figure out of legend rather than a real, living person. Even though he was currently clad in the simpler violet and gold robes of a mage of Dalaran and not the lavish robes he would wear to official occasions, he never seemed to lose his stiffness. Perhaps that was it—there was a sort of…antiquated formality about him. Too, he was much older than she, though he looked about her age. He was sharply intelligent and an extremely talented and powerful mage, and some of the students whispered that he was one of the Six, the secret membership of the highest ranking magi of Dalaran. So she supposed she wasn’t that much of a country bumpkin to find him intimidating.

He reached up and took an apple himself, biting into it. “There is a certain heartiness about food native to human lands that I have come to appreciate.” He smiled conspiratorially. “Sometimes elven food, while certainly delicious and attractively presented, leaves one still hungry for something more substantial.”

Jaina smiled. Prince Kael’thas always tried so hard to put her at ease. She only wished it worked better. “Few things are nicer than an apple and a slice of Dalaran sharp,” she agreed. The silence stretched between then, awkward despite the casualness of the setting and the warmth of the sun. “So, you are back for a while?”

“Yes, my business in Silvermoon has concluded for the time being. So I should not need to depart again anytime soon.” He looked at her as he took another bite of the apple, his handsome features schooled to be impassive. Still, Jaina knew he was waiting for her reaction.

“We are all pleased at your return, Your Highness.”

He wagged a finger at her. “Ah, I’ve told you, I would prefer it if you would simply call me Kael.”

“I’m sorry, Kael.”

He looked at her and a hint of sorrow passed over his perfect features, gone so quickly that Jaina wondered if she had imagined it. “How do your studies progress?”

“Very well,” she said, warming to the conversation now that it was back on scholastic ground. “Watch!” She pointed to a squirrel perched in a high branch, nibbling on an apple, and murmured a spell. At once it transformed into a sheep, a look of comical surprise on its face as the branch broke beneath its weight and it started to fall. Immediately Jaina extended a hand and the squirrel-sheep halted in midair. Gently she lowered it unharmed to the ground. It bleated at her, twitching its ears, and after a moment again resumed the shape of a very confused-looking squirrel. It sat on its haunches, chattered at her angrily, then with a flick of its fluffy tail leaped up into the tree again.

Kael’thas chuckled. “Well done! No more setting books on fire, I hope?”

Jaina turned scarlet, remembering the incident. When she’d first arrived, her talent with fire had needed some desperate honing. She’d accidentally incinerated a tome while working with Kael’thas—one he’d actually been holding at the time. He’d responded by insisting that for the next few months, she would need to practice all fire spells in the vicinity of the pools that encircled the prison area. “Er…no, that hasn’t happened for a while.”

“I’m pleased to hear it. Jaina…” He stepped forward, tossing away the half-eaten apple, smiling gently. “I wasn’t making idle conversation when I invited you to come to Quel’Thalas. Dalaran is a marvelous city, and some of the finest magi in Azeroth live here. I know you’re learning much. But I think you would enjoy visiting an entire land where magic is so much a part of the culture. Not just a part of the city, or confined to a handful of elite, educated magi. Magic is the birthright of every citizen. We are all embraced by the Sunwell. Surely you must have some curiosity about it yourself?”

She smiled at him. “I do indeed. And I would love to go there someday. But I think for the moment, my studies can be best advanced here.” Her smile stretched into a grin. “Where people know what to do when I light books on fire.”

He chuckled at that, but his sigh was sad. “Perhaps you are right. And now if you will excuse me—” He gave her a wry grin. “Archmage Antonidas demands a recounting of my time in Silvermoon. Nonetheless, this prince and mage looks deeply forward to more demonstrations of how your training has advanced…and more time spent with you.”

Kael’thas placed a hand to his heart and bowed. Not knowing how to respond, Jaina settled for a curtsey, then watched him go, striding through the gardens like the sun, head high, every inch of him exuding confidence and coiled grace. Even the dirt seemed unwilling to cling to his boots and robe hem.

Jaina crunched a final bite of the apple, then she, too, tossed it away. The squirrel she’d polymorphed earlier scurried headfirst down the trunk, to claim a prize more reachable than the apple that still hung on the tree.

A pair of hands abruptly covered her eyes.

She started, but only in mild surprise—no one who posed a threat would be able to breach the powerful wards erected about the magical city.

“Guess who?” a male voice whispered, but still holding tones of mirth. Jaina, her eyes covered, considered, fighting back a smile.

“Hm…. your hands are calloused, so you’re not a wizard,” she said. “You smell like horses and leather….” Her own small hands brushed feather-light over strong fingers, touching a large ring. She felt the shape of the stone, the design—the seal of Lordaeron.

“Arthas!” she exclaimed, surprise and delight warming her voice as she turned to face him. He uncovered her eyes at once, and grinned down at her. He was less physically perfect than Kael’thas; his hair, like the elven prince’s, was blond, but simply yellow rather than looking like spun gold. He was tall and well-built, seeming solid rather than fluidly graceful to her. And despite the fact that he was of a rank equal to Kael’thas—although she wondered if privately Kael doubted that; the elves seemed to think themselves superior to all humans, regardless of rank—there was an ease about him that Jaina responded to immediately.

Decorum returned to her and she dropped a curtsey. “Your Highness, this is an unlooked-for surprise. What are you doing here, if I may ask?” A sudden thought sobered her. “All is well in Capital City, is it not?”

“Arthas, please. In Dalaran, the magi rule, and mere men must give deference.” His sea-green eyes twinkled with good humor. “And we are comrades in mischief, after sneaking off to see the internment camps, aren’t we?”

She relaxed and smiled. “I suppose we are.”

“In answer to your question, everything is just fine. In fact, so little of real import is going on that my father agreed to my request to come here for a few months to study.”

“Study? But—you are a member of the Order of the Silver Hand. You’re not going to become a mage, are you?”

He laughed and drew her arm through his as they walked back toward the student’s quarters. She easily fell in step with him.

“Hardly. Such intellectual dedication is beyond me, I fear. But it did occur to me that one of the best places in Azeroth to learn about history, the nature of magic, and other things a king needs to know about is right here in Dalaran. Fortunately, Father and your archmage agreed.”

As he spoke, he covered Jaina’s hand, resting on his arm, with his own. It was a friendly and courteous gesture, but Jaina felt a little spark go through her. She glanced up at him. “I’m impressed. The boy who sneaked me out in the middle of the night to go spying on orcs was not quite so interested in history and knowledge.”

Arthas chuckled and bent his head conspiratorially down to hers. “Honestly? I’m still not. I mean, I am, but that’s not the real reason I came here.”

“All right, now I’m confused. Why did you come to Dalaran then?” They had reached her quarters and she stopped, turning to face him and releasing his arm.

He didn’t answer at first, merely held her gaze with his and smiled knowingly. Then he took her hand and kissed it—a courtly gesture, one she had experienced many times from many noble gentlemen. His lips lingered just an instant longer than was strictly proper, and he didn’t release her hand at once.

Her eyes widened. Was he implying…had he really contrived to come to Dalaran for a few months—no mean feat, Antonidas was notoriously leery of outsiders—simply…to see her? Before she could recover sufficiently to ask the question, he winked at her and bowed.

“I will see you tonight at dinner, my lady.”

The dinner was a formal one. The return of Prince Kael’thas and the arrival of Prince Arthas on the same day had sent those who served the Kirin Tor into a flurry of activity. There was a large dining room that was reserved for special occasions, and it was here that the dinner was hosted.

A table large enough to seat over two dozen stretched from one end of the room to the other. Overhead, three chandeliers twinkled with brightly burning candles, echoed by the candles burning on the table. Sconces along the walls held torches, and to keep the ambiance gentle while still providing sufficient illumination, several globes hovered around the sides of the room, ready to be summoned where a little extra light might be needed. Servants rarely intruded, save to bring out and clear the courses; bottles of wine poured themselves with the flick of a finger. Flute, harp, and lute provided soothing background music, their graceful notes created by magic rather than human hands or breaths of air.

Archmage Antonidas presided in one of his rare appearances. He was a tall man, seeming all the taller because of his extremely thin build. His long beard now had much more gray than brown in it, and his head was completely bald, but his eyes were alert and piercing. Present also was Archmage Krasus, upright and alert, his hair catching the candle-and torchlight to gleam mostly silver, with red and black streaks. Many others were in attendance, all of high rank. Jaina, in fact, was far and away the lowest-ranking person present, and she was the archmage’s apprentice.

Jaina came from a military background, and one of the things her father had instilled in her was a solid understanding of her strengths and weaknesses. “It is as much of a mistake to underestimate yourself as to overestimate yourself,” Daelin had once told her. “False modesty is as bad as false pride. Know exactly what you are capable of at any moment, and act accordingly. Any other path is folly—and could be deadly in battle.”

She knew she was deft in the magical arts. She was intelligent and focused, and had learned much in the short time she had already been here. Surely Antonidas would not take on an apprentice as a charity case. With no sense of the false pride her father had warned her so judiciously about, she understood she had the potential to become a powerful mage. She wanted to succeed on her own merit, not be advanced because an elven prince enjoyed her company. She fought to keep her face from betraying her irritation as she spooned up another mouthful of turtle bisque.

The conversation, not surprisingly as the internment camps were located fairly close to Dalaran, focused on the orcs, although the mage city liked to think itself above such things.

Kael reached a long, elegant hand for another slice of bread and began buttering it. “Lethargic or no,” he said, “they are dangerous.”

“My father, King Terenas, agrees with your assessment, Prince Kael’thas,” Arthas said, smiling charmingly at the elf. “That’s why the camps exist. It is unfortunate that they cost so much to maintain, but surely, a little gold is a small price for the safety of the people of Azeroth.”

“They are beasts, brutes,” said Kael’thas, his normally tenor voice dropping in his disgust. “They and their dragons damaged Quel’Thalas badly. Only the Sunwell’s energies prevented them from wreaking even more havoc than they did. You humans could solve the problem of protecting your people without taxing them so severely by simply executing the creatures.”

Jaina recalled the one glimpse she had seen of the orcs. They had looked weary to her, broken and dejected. They’d had children with them.

“Have you been to the camps, Prince Kael’thas?” she said tartly, speaking before she could stop herself. “Have you actually seen what they have become?”

Color rose in Kael’thas’s cheeks for a moment, but he kept his expression pleasant. “No, Lady Jaina, I have not. Nor do I see any need to. I see what they have done whenever I behold the burned trunks of the glorious trees of my homeland, and pay my respects to those slain in that attack. And surely you have not seen them, either. I cannot imagine that so refined a lady would wish to be given a tour of the camps.”

Jaina very carefully did not look at Arthas as she replied, “While His Highness gives me a lovely compliment, I do not think that refinement has any bearing on one’s desire to see justice. Indeed, I think it rather more likely that a refined individual would not wish to see sentient beings slaughtered like animals.” She gave him a pleasant smile and continued eating her soup. Kael’thas gave her a searching look, confused by her reaction.

“The law is Lordaeron’s, and King Terenas may do as he sees fit in his own realm,” Antonidas broke in.

“Dalaran and every other Alliance kingdom also must pay for their upkeep,” said a mage Jaina did not know. “Surely we have a voice in this, since we are paying for it?”

Antonidas waved a thin hand. “It is not the issue of who pays for the camps, or indeed whether the camps are even necessary. It is this strange lethargy of the orcs that intrigues me. I have researched what little we have on orcish history, and I do not believe it is confinement that renders them so listless. Nor do I believe it is an illness—at least, not one that we need worry about contracting.”

Because Antonidas never indulged in idle chatter, everyone stopped their bickering and turned to listen to him. Jaina was surprised. This was the first she had heard from any of the magi regarding the orcish situation at all. She had no doubt that this was a deliberate decision on Antonidas’s part to reveal this information at this time. With both Arthas and Kael’thas present, word would travel swiftly throughout Lordaeron and Quel’Thalas. Antonidas did little by accident.

“If it is not an illness, nor a direct result of their internment,” Arthas said pleasantly, “then what do you think it is, Archmage?”

Antonidas turned toward the young prince. “It is my understanding that the orcs were not always so bloodthirsty. Khadgar told me what he had learned from Garona, who—”

“Garona was the half-breed who murdered King Llane,” Arthas said, all trace of good humor gone. “With all due respect, I do not think we can trust anything such a creature says.”

Antonidas lifted up a calming hand, as some of the others began to murmur agreement. “This information came before she turned traitor,” he said. “And it has been verified through—other sources.” He smiled a little, deliberately refusing to identify what “other sources” he had consulted. “They committed themselves to demonic influence. Their skin turned green, their eyes red. I believe they were saturated with this external darkness by the time of the first invasion. Now they have been cut off from that source of sustenance. I think we are seeing not an illness, but withdrawal. Demonic energy is a potent thing. To be denied it would have dire consequences.”

Kael’thas waved a hand dismissively. “Even if such a theory is correct, why should we care about them? They were foolish enough to trust demons. They were thoughtless enough to permit themselves to become addicted to these corruptive energies. I, for one, do not think it is wise to ‘help’ them find a cure for this addiction, even if it could return them to a peaceful state. Right now, they are powerless and crushed. It is how I—and anyone in his right mind—prefer to see them, after what they have done to us.”

“Ah, but if they can be returned to a peaceful state, then we will not have to keep them locked up in the camps, and the money can be distributed elsewhere,” Antonidas said mildly, before the entire table could erupt in argument. “I’m sure King Terenas does not levy these fees simply to line his own pockets. How does your father fare, Prince Arthas? And your family? I regret that I was unable to attend your initiation ceremony, but I hear it was quite the event.”

“Stormwind was most gracious to me,” Arthas said, smiling warmly and digging into the second course of delicately broiled trout served with sautéed greens. “It was good to see King Varian again.”

“His lovely queen has recently provided him with an heir, I understand.”

“Indeed. And if the way little Anduin grips my finger is any indication of how he’ll grip a sword one day, he’ll make a fine warrior.”

“While we all pray your coronation day is many years distant, I daresay that a royal wedding would be welcomed,” Antonidas continued. “Have any young ladies caught your eye, or are you still Lordaeron’s most eligible bachelor?”

Kael’thas turned his attention to his plate, but Jaina knew he was following the conversation keenly. She kept her own face carefully composed.

Arthas did not look in her direction as he laughed and reached for the wine. “Ah, that would be telling, would it not? And where’s the fun in that? There’s plenty of time left for such things.”

Mixed feelings washed over Jaina. She was a little disappointed, but also somewhat relieved. Perhaps it was best if she and Arthas remained only friends. After all, she had come here to learn how to be the most accomplished mage she could become, not flirt. A student of magic needed to be disciplined, to be logical, not emotional. She had duties, and needed to perform them with her full attention.

She needed to study.

“I need to study,” Jaina protested a few days after the dinner, when Arthas approached her leading two horses.

“Come on, Jaina.” Arthas grinned. “Even the most diligent student needs to take a break now and then. It’s a beautiful day and you should be out enjoying it.”

“I am,” she said. It was true; she was in the gardens with her books, rather than cloistered in one of the reading rooms.

“A bit of exercise will help you think better.” He extended a hand to her as she sat underneath the tree. She smiled despite herself.

“Arthas, you will be a magnificent king one day,” she said teasingly, grasping his hand and allowing herself to be pulled to her feet. “No one can seem to deny you anything.”

He laughed at that and held her horse while she mounted. She was wearing trousers today, light linen breeches, and was able to sit astride rather than sidesaddle with long robes. He swung up easily on his own horse a moment later.

Jaina glanced at the horse he was riding—a bay mare, rather than the white stallion fate had snatched from him. “I don’t think I ever said how sorry I was about Invincible,” she said quietly. The mirth left his face, and it was like a shadow passing over the sun. Then the smile returned, slightly sobered.

“It’s all right, but thanks. Now—I have picnic supplies and the day awaits. Let’s go!”

It was a day Jaina would remember for the rest of her life, one of those perfect late summer days where the sunlight seemed thick and golden as honey. Arthas set a hard pace, but Jaina was an experienced rider and kept up easily. He took her far away from the city and along stretches of green, expansive meadows. The horses seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as their riders, their ears *****ed forward and their nostrils flaring as they inhaled the rich scents.

The picnic was simple but delicious fare—bread, cheese, fruit, some light white wine. Arthas lay back, folding his arms behind his head, and dozed for a bit while Jaina kicked off her boots, digging her feet into the thick, soft grass as she sat with her back to a tree, and read for a while. The book was interesting—A Treatise on the Nature of Teleportation—but the languid heat of the day, the vigorous exercise, and the soft hum of cicadas served to lull her to sleep as well.
Jaina awoke some time later slightly chilled; the sun was starting to go down. She sat up, knuckling the sleep out of her eyes, to realize that Arthas was nowhere to be seen. Nor was his horse. Her own gelding, reins draped about a tree branch, grazed contentedly.

Frowning, she got to her feet. “Arthas?” There was no answer. Likely he had just decided to go for a quick exploration and would be back any moment. She strained to listen for the sound of hoofbeats, but there were none.

There were still orcs loose, wandering around. Or so the rumors went. And mountain cats and bears—less alien but no less dangerous. Mentally Jaina went over her spells in her mind. She was sure she’d be able to defend herself if she was attacked.

Well—fairly sure.

The attack was sudden and silent.

A thump against the back of her neck and cold wetness was the first and only clue she had. She gasped and whirled. Her attacker was a blur of motion, leaping to another hiding space with the speed of a stag, pausing only long enough to fire another missile at her. This one caught her in the mouth and she started to choke—with laughter. She pawed at the snow, gasping a little as some of it slid down her shirt.

“Arthas! You don’t fight fair!”

Her answer was four snowballs rolled in her direction, and she scrambled to pick them up. He’d obviously climbed high enough to find the places in the mountains where winter had come early, and returned with snowballs as trophies. Where was he? There—a flash of his red tunic—

The fight continued for a while, until both had run out of ammunition. “Truce!” Arthas called, and when Jaina agreed, laughing so hard she could barely get the word out, he leaped from his place of concealment among the rocks and ran to her. He hugged her, laughing as well, and she was pleased to see that he, too, had traces of snow in his hair.

“I knew it all those years ago,” he said.

“Knew w-what?” Jaina had been pelted with so many snowballs that despite the fact that it was late summer, she was chilled. Arthas felt her shivering and tightened his arms around her. Jaina knew she should pull back; a friendly and spontaneous hug was one thing, but to linger in his embrace was something else. But she stayed where she was, letting her head rest against his chest, her ear pressed against his heart, hearing it thump rhythmically and rapidly. She closed her eyes as one hand came up to stroke her hair, removing bits of snow as he spoke.

“The day I first saw you, I thought that this would be a girl I could have fun with. Someone who wouldn’t mind going for a swim on a hot summer day, or”—he stepped back a little, brushing a few bits of melting pieces of winter off her face and smiling—“or getting a snowball in the face. I didn’t hurt you, did I?”

She smiled in return, suddenly warmed. “No. No you didn’t.” Their eyes met and Jaina felt heat coming to her cheeks. She moved to step back, but his arm encircled her as firmly as an iron band. He continued to touch her face, trailing strong, calloused fingers down the curve of her cheek.

“Jaina,” he said quietly, and she shivered, but not from cold, not this time. It was not proper. She should move back. Instead she lifted her face and closed her eyes.

The kiss was gentle at first, soft and sweet, the first Jaina had ever known. As if of their own will, her arms crept up to drape around his neck and she pressed against him as the kiss deepened. She felt as though she was drowning, and he was the only solid thing in the world.

This was what—who—she wanted. This youth who was her friend despite his title, who saw and understood her scholarly character but also knew how to coax forth the playful and adventurous girl who didn’t often have a chance to come out—who wasn’t often glimpsed.

But he had seen all of who she was, not just the face she presented to the world.

“Arthas,” she whispered as she clung to him. “Arthas…”
It was a good few months, in Dalaran. Arthas found, somewhat to his surprise, that he actually was learning things that would be useful for a king to know. There were also plenty of opportunities to enjoy the lingering summer and first cool hints of autumn, and he loved riding, even if he felt a pang in his chest every time he mounted a horse that was not Invincible.

And there was Jaina.

He’d not planned on kissing her initially. But when he found himself with her in his arms, her eyes bright with laughter and good humor, he’d done so. And she’d responded. Her schedule was more demanding and rigorous than his, and they had not seen each other nearly as much as they had wanted to. When they had, it was usually at public functions. And both had agreed without discussing it at all that it would not do to give the rumor mill any grist.

It lent an extra spice to the relationship. They stole moments when they could—a kiss in an alcove, a fleeting look at a formal dinner. Their first outing had been completely innocent at the outset; but now they avoided such things assiduously.

He memorized her schedule so as to “bump” into her. She found excuses to wander into the stables or in the courtyard that Arthas and his men used as practice areas to keep their battle skills sharp.

Arthas loved every risky, daring minute of it.

Now he waited in a little-used hallway, standing in front of a bookshelf, pretending to peruse the titles. Jaina would be coming in from her fire spell practice; out of habit, she told him with a slightly embarrassed grin, she still trained near the jail area and the many pools of water. She’d have to cross through this area to get to her room. His ears strained for the sound. There it was—the soft, swift pad of her slippered feet moving across the floor. He turned, taking a book down and pretending to look at it, watching for her out of the corner of her eye.

Jaina was clad, as usual, in traditional apprentice robes. Her hair looked like sunshine and her face was set in her typical expression of a concentrated furrow, one of deep thought, not displeasure. She hadn’t even noticed him. Quickly he put the book away and darted out into the hallway before she could get too far, grasping her arm and tugging her into the shadows.

As ever, she was never startled by him, and met him halfway, clutching the books to her chest with one arm while the other went around his neck as they kissed.

“Hello, my lady,” he murmured, kissing her neck, grinning against her skin.

“Hello, my prince,” she murmured happily, sighing.

“Jaina,” came a voice, “why are you—”

They sprang apart guiltily, staring at the intruder. Jaina gasped softly and color sprang to her face. “Kael…”

The elf’s face was carefully composed, but anger burned in his eyes, and his jaw was set. “You dropped a book as you left,” he said, lifting the tome. “I followed you to return it.”

Jaina glanced up at Arthas, biting her lower lip. He was as startled as she, but he forced an easy smile. He kept his arm around Jaina as he turned to Kael’thas.

“That’s very kind of you, Kael,” he said. “Thanks.”

For a moment, he thought Kael’thas would attack him. Anger and outrage fairly crackled around the mage. He was powerful, and Arthas knew that he wouldn’t stand a chance. Even so, he kept his gaze even with the elven prince’s, not backing down an inch. Kael’thas clenched his fists and remained where he was.

“Ashamed of her are you, Arthas?” Kael’thas hissed. “Is she only worth your time and attention if no one knows about her?”

Arthas’s eyes narrowed. “I had thought to avoid the ravages of the rumor mill,” he said quietly. “You know how those things work, Kael, don’t you? Someone says something and next thing you know, it’s believed to be true. I would protect her reputation by—”

“Protect?” Kael’thas barked the word. “If you cared about her, you would court her openly, proudly. Any man would.” He looked at Jaina, and the anger was gone, replaced by a fleeting expression of pain. Then that, too, disappeared. Jaina looked down. “I will leave you two to your…tryst. And do not fear, I will say nothing.”

With an angry hiss, he scornfully tossed the book toward Jaina. The tome, likely invaluable, landed with a thump at Jaina’s feet, and she started at the sound. Then he was gone in a swirl of violet and gold robes. Jaina let out her breath and laid her head on Arthas’s chest.

Arthas patted her back gently. “It’s all right, he’s gone now.”

“I’m sorry. I guess I should have told you.”

His chest contracted. “Told me what? Jaina—are you and he—”

“No!” she answered at once, gazing up at him. “No. But—I think he wanted to. I just—he’s a good man, and a powerful mage. And a prince. But he’s not…” Her voice trailed off.

“He’s not what?” The words came out sharper than he had intended. Kael was so many things Arthas wasn’t. Older, more sophisticated, experienced, powerful, and almost impossibly physically perfect. He felt jealousy growing inside him in a cold, hard knot. If Kael had reappeared at that moment, Arthas wasn’t so sure he wouldn’t take a swing at him.

Jaina smiled softly, the furrow in her brow uncreasing. “He’s not you.”

The icy knot inside him melted like winter retreating before the warmth of spring, and he pulled her to him and kissed her again.

Who cared what a stuffy elven prince thought anyway?

The year unfolded largely without incident. As summer gave way to a crisp fall and then winter, more complaints rose about the cost of tending to the orc camps, but both Terenas and Arthas expected such. Arthas continued to train with Uther. The older man was adamant that while training at arms was important, so was prayer and meditation. “Yes, we must be able to cut down our enemies,” he said. “But we must also be able to heal our friends and ourselves.”

Arthas thought about Invincible. His thoughts always drifted to the horse in winter, and Uther’s comment only reminded him yet again of what he regarded as the one failure in his entire life. If only he had begun training earlier, the great white stallion would still be alive. He had never revealed to anyone exactly what had happened on that snowy day. They all believed it was an accident. And it was, Arthas told himself. He had not deliberately intended to harm Invincible. He loved the horse; he would sooner have harmed himself. And if he’d begun paladin training earlier, like Varian had done with sword fighting, he’d have been able to save Invincible. He swore that would not happen again. He would do whatever was necessary so that he would never be caught unawares and impotent, would never not be able to make it right.

The winter passed, as all winters must, and spring came to Tirisfal Glades again. And so did Jaina Proudmoore, arriving and looking to Arthas as beautiful, fresh, and welcome a sight as the new blossoms on the awakening trees. She had come to assist him in publicly celebrating Noblegarden, the major spring celebration in Lordaeron and Stormwind. Arthas found that staying up late the night before, sipping wine and filling eggs with candy and other treats, was not quite the boring task it would have been had Jaina not been there with him, her brow furrowed in the endearing fashion he had come to recognize as hers and hers alone, as she carefully and intently filled the eggs and set them aside.

While there was still no public announcement, Arthas and Jaina both knew their parents had spoken with one another, and there was a tacit agreement that the courtship would be permitted. So it was that more and more Arthas, beloved already by his people, was sent to represent Lordaeron at public functions rather than Uther or Terenas. With the passing of time, Uther had increasingly withdrawn into the spiritual aspect of the Light, and Terenas seemed more than content to not have to travel.

“It is exciting when you are young, to travel for days on horseback and sleep under the stars,” he told Arthas. “When you are my age, though, horseback riding is best left for recreation, and the stars one can glimpse by looking out the window are quite close enough.”

Arthas had grinned, diving with pleasure into the new responsibilities. Admiral Proudmoore and Archmage Antonidas had apparently come to the same conclusions. For more and more often, when messengers from Dalaran were sent to Capital City, Lady Jaina Proudmoore accompanied them.

“Come for the Midsummer Fire Festival,” he said suddenly. She looked up at him, holding an egg carefully in one hand, brushing a lock of golden hair from her face with the other.

“I can’t. Summer is a very intensive time for the students at Dalaran. Antonidas has already told me to expect to stay there the whole time.” Regret was in her voice.

“Then I’ll come visit you for Midsummer, and you can come for Hallow’s End,” Arthas said. She shook her head and laughed at him.

“You are persistent, Arthas Menethil. I will try.”

“No, you’ll come.” He reached across the table, littered with carefully hollowed out, brightly painted eggs and small candies, and placed his hand over hers.

She smiled, still a little shy after all this time, her cheeks turning pink.

She would come.

There were several smaller festivals leading up to Hallow’s End. One was somber, one was celebratory, and this one was a bit of both. It was believed to be a time when the barrier between the living and the dead was thin, and those who had passed on could be sensed by those still alive. Tradition had it that at the end of the harvest season, before the winds of winter began to blow, that a straw effigy would be erected right outside the palace. At sunset on the night of the ceremony, it would be lit on fire. It was an awesome sight—a giant flaming wicker man, burning bright against the encroaching night. Anyone who wished could approach the fiery effigy, toss a branch into the cracking flames, and in so doing metaphorically “burn away” anything he did not wish to carry into the quiet, deep reflection time provided by winter’s enforced inactivity.

It was a peasant ritual, sprung up from time immemorial. Arthas suspected that few nowadays truly believed that tossing a branch into a fire would really solve their problems; even fewer believed that contact with the dead was possible. He certainly didn’t. But it was a popular celebration, and it brought Jaina back to Lordaeron, and for those reasons, he was looking forward to it.

He had a little surprise for her in mind.

It was right after sunset. The crowds had begun gathering in late afternoon. Some had even brought picnics and made an event out of enjoying the last few days of late autumn among the hills of Tirisfal. There were guards stationed about, keeping an eye out for the mishaps that often happen when large numbers of people are gathered in one place, but Arthas really didn’t expect any difficulties. When he came out of the palace, clad in a tunic, breeches, and cloak of rich autumnal hues, cheers erupted. He paused and waved at the onlookers, accepting their applause, then turned and extended his hand to Jaina.

She looked a little surprised, but smiled, and the cheers now lifted her name to the darkening sky as well as his. Arthas and Jaina walked down the path to the giant wicker man and stood before it. Arthas held up a hand for silence.

“My countrymen, I join you in celebration of this most revered of nights—the night when we remember those who are no longer with us, and cast aside the things that hold us back. We burn the effigy of the wicker man as a symbol of the year that is passing, much as the farmers burn the remains of the harvested fields. The ashes nourish the soil, and this rite nourishes our souls. It is good to see so many here tonight. I am pleased to be able to offer the distinct honor of lighting the wicker man to Lady Jaina Proudmoore.”

Jaina’s eyes went wide. Arthas turned to her, grinning wickedly.

“She is the daughter of war hero Admiral Daelin Proudmoore, and promises to be a powerful mage in her own right. As magi are masters of fire, I think it only right that she light our wicker man this evening. Do you agree?”

Those assembled roared with delight, as Arthas knew they would. Arthas bowed at Jaina, then leaned in and whispered, “Give them a show—they’ll love it.”

Jaina nodded imperceptibly, then turned to the crowd and waved. Their cheering increased. She tucked a lock of hair behind her ear, briefly revealing her nervousness, then composed her face. She closed her eyes and lifted her hands, murmuring an incantation.

Jaina was dressed in fire hues of red, yellow, and orange. As small balls of flame began to materialize in her hands, glowing faintly at first and then with increasing brightness, she looked to Arthas like fire itself for a moment. She held the fire in her hands with ease, comfort, and mastery, and he knew that the days when she had little control over her spells were long gone. She wasn’t going to “become” a powerful mage; she obviously already was one, in fact if not in title.

And then she extended both hands. The balls of fire leaped like a bullet fired from a gun, hurtling toward the enormous straw effigy. It erupted into flame at once, and the onlookers gasped, then broke into wild applause. Arthas grinned. The wicker man never caught on fire that quickly when an ordinary brand was touched to its base.

Jaina opened her eyes at the sound and waved, smiling delightedly. Arthas leaned close and whispered, “Spectacular, Jaina.”

“You asked me to give them a show,” she shot back, grinning at him.

“Indeed I did. But that was almost too good a show. They’re going to demand that you light the wicker man every year now I’m afraid.”

She turned to look at him. “Would that be a problem?”

The light from the blazing fire danced over her, illuminating her lively features, catching the glint of a gold circlet adorning her head. Arthas caught his breath as he regarded her. She’d always been attractive to him, and he’d liked her from the moment they’d met. She’d been a friend, a confidant, an exciting flirtation. But now he couldn’t help but see her, quite literally, in a whole new light.

It took a moment for him to find his voice. “No,” he said softly. “No, it wouldn’t be a problem at all.”

They joined the throngs dancing by the fire that night, causing the guards no end of consternation as they went right down among the populace and shook hands and exchanged greetings. And then they gave the dutiful guards the slip, losing themselves in the crowd and stealing away unnoticed. Arthas led her through the back corridors to the private living quarters of the palace. Once they were almost caught by some servants taking a shortcut to the kitchens, and had to flatten themselves against the wall and stay perfectly still for several long moments.

Then they were in Arthas’s rooms. He closed the door, leaned back up against it, and swept her into his arms, kissing her deeply. But it was she, shy, studious Jaina, who broke the kiss and moved toward the bed, leading him by the hand, the orange light from the still-blazing wicker man outside dancing on their skin.

He followed, almost as in a daze, a dream, as they stood beside the bed, their hands clasped so tightly Arthas feared her fingers would snap in his grip. “Jaina,” he whispered.

“Arthas,” she said, the word a whimper, and kissed him again, her hands reaching up to clasp his face between her hands. He was dizzy with wanting her, and felt suddenly bereft as she drew back. Her breath was soft and warm on his face as she whispered, “I…are we ready for this?”

He started to answer flippantly, but he knew what she was really asking. He could not imagine being more ready to bring this girl the rest of the way into his heart. He had turned down the lovely Taretha, and she had not been the first he had said no to. Jaina, he knew, was even less experienced than he in such matters.

“I am if you are,” he whispered hoarsely, and as he bent to kiss her again, he saw the familiar furrow of worry cross her brow. I will kiss it away, he vowed, bringing her onto the bed with him. I will make everything you could ever worry about go away forever.

Later, when the wicker man had finally burned out and the only light on Jaina’s sleeping form was the cool blue-white of moonlight, Arthas still lay awake, running his fingers along the curves of her body and alternately wondering where this would all lead and feeling content to simply be in the moment.

He had not tossed in a branch to the wicker man fire, because he had nothing he wished to be rid of. Nor did he now, he thought, bending forward to kiss her. Jaina awakened with a soft sigh, reaching for him.

“No one can seem to deny you anything,” she murmured, repeating the words she had said to him the day of their first kiss, “least of all me.”

He clutched her to him then, a sudden cold shivering over him, though he had no idea why. “Don’t deny me, Jaina. Don’t ever deny me. Please.”

She looked up at him, eyes glittering in the cool moonlight. “I never would, Arthas. Never.”
The palace had never been so cheerily decorated for the Feast of Winter Veil as it was this year. Muradin, ever a good ambassador of his people, had brought the dwarven tradition to Lordaeron upon his arrival. Over the years it had increased in popularity, and this year the people seemed to truly take it to heart.

The festive tone had been established a few weeks earlier, when Jaina had delighted them so with her theatrical display of igniting the wicker man. She had been granted permission to stay through the winter if she so chose, although Dalaran was not far to one who could teleport herself. Something had changed. It was both subtle and profound. Jaina Proudmoore was starting to be treated as more than the daughter of the ruler of Kul Tiras, more than a friend.

She was starting to be treated as a member of the royal family.

Arthas first realized it when his mother took both Jaina and Calia to be fitted for the formal dresses fashion required for the Winter Veil Eve ball. Other guests had spent Winter Veil here; Lianne had never before wanted to coordinate their outfits with her own and that of her daughter.

Too, Terenas now often requested that Jaina join him and Arthas when they sat to listen to the peoples’ petitions. She sat on the king’s left, Arthas on his right. In a position nearly equal to the king’s own son.

Well, Arthas thought, he supposed that it was the logical conclusion. Wasn’t it? He recalled his words to Calia years ago: “We each have our duties, I guess. You to marry whomever Father wants, and me to marry well for the kingdom.”

Jaina would be good for the kingdom. Jaina, he thought, would be good for him, too.

So why did the thought make him feel so uneasy?

They had fresh snow for the night before Winter Veil. Arthas stood looking out of a large window at Lordamere Lake, frozen over now. The snow had begun falling at dawn, and had stopped about an hour ago. The sky was black velvet, the stars small icy diamonds against the soft darkness, and moonlight made everything look still, hushed, and magical.

A soft hand slipped into his. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” Jaina said quietly. Arthas nodded, not looking at her. “Plenty of ammunition.”


“Ammunition,” Jaina repeated. “For snowball fights.”

He finally turned to her and his breath caught. He’d not been permitted to see the gowns she, Calia, and his mother would be wearing to the banquet and ball this evening, and he was stunned by her beauty. Jaina Proudmoore looked like a snow maiden. From shoes that looked to be made of ice, to a white gown tinged with the palest blue to the circlet of silver that caught the warm glow of the torchlight, she was heartbreakingly lovely. But she was no ice queen, no statue; she was warm and soft and alive, her golden hair flowing about her shoulders, her cheeks pink beneath his admiring gaze, her blue eyes bright with happiness.

“You’re like…a white candle,” he said. “All white and gold.” He reached for a lock of her hair, twirling it about his fingers.

She grinned. “Yes,” she laughed, reaching to touch his own bright locks, “the children will almost certainly be blond.”

He froze.

“Jaina—are you—”

She chuckled. “No. Not yet. But there’s no reason to think we won’t be able to have children.”

Children. Again, the word that galvanized him in shock and peculiar distress. She was talking about the children they would have. His mind galloped into the future, a future with Jaina as his wife, their children in the palace, his parents gone, himself on the throne, the weight of the crown on his head. Part of him desperately wanted that. He loved having Jaina by his side, loved holding her in his arms at night, loved the taste and smell of her, loved her laughter, pure as a bell and sweet as the scent of roses.

He loved—

What if he ruined it?

Because suddenly he knew that until this moment, it had all been child’s play. He’d thought of Jaina as a companion, just as she had been since his boyhood, except their games were now of a more adult nature. But something had suddenly shifted inside him. What if this was real? What if he really was in love with her, and she with him? What if he was a bad husband, a bad king—what if—

“I’m not ready,” he blurted.

Her brow furrowed. “Well, we do not have to have little ones right away.” She squeezed his hand in what was clearly intended to be a gesture of reassurance.

Arthas suddenly dropped her hand and took a step backward. Her frown deepened in confusion.

“Arthas? What’s wrong?”

“Jaina—we’re too young,” he said, speaking rapidly, his voice rising slightly. “I’m too young. There’s still—I can’t—I’m not ready.”

She paled. “You aren’t—I thought—”

Guilt racked him. She’d asked him this, the night they became lovers. Are you ready for this? she had whispered. I am if you are, he had replied, and he’d meant it…. He really had thought he’d meant it….

Arthas reached out and grabbed her hands, trying desperately to articulate the emotions racing through him. “I still have so much to learn. So much training to complete. And Father needs me. Uther’s got so much he needs to teach and—Jaina, we’ve always been friends. You’ve always understood me so well. Can’t you understand me now? Can’t we still be friends?”

Her bloodless lips opened but no words came out at first. Her hands were limp in his. Almost frantically he squeezed them.

Jaina, please. Please understand—even if I don’t.

“Of course, Arthas.” Her voice was a monotone. “We’ll always be friends, you and I.”

Everything, from her posture to her face to her voice, bespoke her pain and her shock. But Arthas clung instead to her words as a wave of relief, so profound it made his knees weak, swept over him. It was all going to be just fine. It might upset her now, a little, but surely she’d understand soon. They knew each other. She’d figure out that he was right, that it was too soon.

“I mean—this isn’t forever,” he said, feeling the need to explain. “Just for now. You’ve got studying to do—I’m sure I’ve been a distraction. Antonidas probably resents me.”

She said nothing.

“This is for the best. Maybe one day it’ll be different and we can try again. It’s not that I don’t—that you—”

He pulled her into his arms and hugged her. She was stiff as stone for a moment, then he felt the tension leave her and her arms went around him. They stood alone in the hall for a long time, Arthas resting his cheek against her bright gold hair, the hair that, no doubt, their children would indeed have been born with. Might still be born with.

“I don’t want to close the door,” he said quietly. “I just—”

“It’s all right, Arthas. I understand.”

He stepped back, his hands on her shoulders, peering into her eyes. “Do you?”

She laughed slightly. “Honestly? No. But it’s all right. It will be eventually, anyway. I know that.”

“Jaina, I just want to make sure this is right. For both of us.”

I don’t want to mess this up. I can’t mess this up.

She nodded. She took a deep breath and steadied herself, giving him a smile…a real, if hurting, smile. “Come, Prince Arthas. You need to escort your friend to the ball.”

Arthas somehow made it through the evening, and so did Jaina, although Terenas kept giving him strange glances. He didn’t want to tell his father, not yet. It was a strained and unhappy night, and at one point during a pause in the dancing, Arthas looked out at the blanket of white snow and the moon-silvered lake, and wondered why everything bad seemed to happen in winter.

Lieutenant General Aedelas Blackmoore didn’t look particularly happy to have this exclusive audience with King Terenas and Prince Arthas. In fact, he looked like he desperately would like to slink away unnoticed.

The years had not been kind to him, neither physically nor in the hand fate had dealt him. Arthas recalled a handsome, rather dashing military commander who, while doubtless overfond of his drink, at least seemed able to keep the ravages of it at bay. No longer. Blackmoore’s hair was streaked with gray, he had put on weight, and his eyes were bloodshot. He was, fortunately, stone-cold sober. Had he showed up to this meeting intoxicated, Terenas, a firm believer in the need for moderation in all things, would have refused to see him.

Blackmoore was here today because he had messed up. Badly. Somehow the man’s prized gladiator orc, Thrall, had escaped Durnholde in a fire. Blackmoore had tried to keep it quiet and conduct his search for the orc personally and on a small scale, but a secret as large as a massive green orc could not be contained forever. Once word had gotten out, rumors flew wildly, of course—it was a rival lord who had freed the orc, anxious to ensure winning in the rings; it was a jealous mistress, hoping to embarrass him; it was a clever band of orcs unaffected by the strange lethargy—no, no, it was Orgrim Doomhammer himself; it was dragons, infiltrating disguised as humans, who lit the place afire with only their breath.

Arthas had thought Thrall exciting to watch in combat, but he recalled that even then the thought had crossed his mind whether it was wise to train and educate an orc. When information had come that Thrall was on the loose, Terenas had summoned Blackmoore immediately for an accounting.

“It was bad enough that you thought it a good idea to train an orc to fight in gladiatorial combat,” Terenas began. “But to train him in military strategy, to teach him to read, to write…I must ask, Lieutenant General…what in the Light’s name were you thinking?”

Arthas smothered a grin as Aedelas Blackmoore seemed to physically diminish right in front of his eyes.

“You assured me that the funds and materials went directly into stepping up security, and that your pet orc was securely guarded.” Terenas continued, “And yet somehow, he is out there instead of safely inside Durnholde. How is that possible?”

Blackmoore frowned and rallied somewhat. “It is certainly unfortunate that Thrall escaped. I’m sure you understand how I must feel.”

It was a hit on Blackmoore’s part; Terenas still smarted from the fact that Doomhammer had escaped from under his very nose. But it wasn’t a particularly wise hit. Terenas frowned and continued.

“I hope this isn’t part of some disturbing trend. The money is earned from the labor of the people, Lieutenant General. It goes toward keeping them safe. Do I need to send along a representative to ensure that the funds are properly distributed?”

“No! No, no, that won’t be necessary. I will account for every penny.”

“Yes,” said Terenas with deceptive mildness, “you will.”

When Blackmoore finally left, bowing obsequiously the whole way out, Terenas turned to his son.

“What are your thoughts on the situation? You saw Thrall in action.”

Arthas nodded. “He wasn’t at all like I had imagined orcs to be. I mean…he was huge. And fought fiercely. But it was obvious he was also intelligent. And trained.”

Terenas stroked his beard, thinking. “There are pockets of renegade orcs out there. Some who might not have this lassitude that the ones we’ve imprisoned have demonstrated. If Thrall were to find them and teach them what he knows, it could be a very bad thing for us.”

Arthas sat up straighter. This could be what he’d been looking for. “I’ve been training hard with Uther.” And he had been. Unable to properly explain to others—and to himself—why he had ended the relationship with Jaina, he’d thrown himself into his training. He’d fought for hours a day until his body ached, attempting to sufficiently exhaust himself so that he could get her face out of his mind.

It had been what he wanted, hadn’t it? She’d taken it well. So why was it he who lay awake at night, missing her warmth and presence with a pain that bordered on agony? He had even embraced hitherto despised hours spent in still, silent meditation in an effort to distract himself. Maybe if he focused on fighting, on learning how to accept and channel and direct the Light, he could get the hell over her. Over the girl he himself had broken up with.

“We could go looking for such orcs. Find them before Thrall does.”

Terenas nodded. “Uther has informed me of your dedication, and he’s been impressed with your progress.” He reached a decision. “Very well then. Go tell Uther and start preparing. It’s time for your first taste of real battle.”

Arthas was hard put not to let out a whoop of excitement. He refrained, even in his delight picking up on the pained, worried look on his father’s face. Maybe, just maybe, killing rebellious greenskins would erase the memory of Jaina’s stricken expression when he’d ended their relationship.

“Thank you, sir. I’ll do you proud.”

Despite the regret in his father’s blue-green eyes, so like Arthas’s own, Terenas smiled. “That, my son, is the least of my worries.”
Jaina raced through the gardens, late to her meeting with Archmage Antonidas. She’d done it again—lost track of time with her nose buried in a book. Her master was always chiding her about that, but she couldn’t help it. Her slippered feet took her down between the rows of goldenbark apple trees, the fruit hanging heavy and ripe. She felt a brief brush of sorrow as she remembered a conversation held here only a few short years ago—when Arthas had appeared behind her, slipping his hands over her eyes, and whispering, “Guess who?”

Arthas. She missed him still. She supposed she always would. The breakup had been unexpected and hurtful, and the timing couldn’t have been worse—she still cringed as she thought about having to continue through the formal Winter Veil ball as if nothing had gone wrong—but as the initial shock had faded she had grown to understand his reasoning. They were both young yet and, as he had pointed out at the time, they had responsibilities and training to complete. She’d promised him they’d always stay friends, and she had meant it, then and afterward. In order for her to keep that promise, she had had to heal. And so she had done.

Certainly much had happened in those few short years to keep her busy and focused elsewhere. Five years ago, a powerful wizard named Kel’Thuzad had drawn the ire of the Kirin Tor with his dabbling in unnatural necromantic magic. He had left, suddenly and mysteriously, after being severely reprimanded and told in no uncertain terms to cease his experiments immediately. The mystery had been one of many things that had helped distract her over the last three years.

Outside the gates of the magical city, things had happened too, though information was scattered, rumor-ridden, and chaotic. As best Jaina had been able to determine, the escaped orc Thrall, now calling himself the warchief of the new Horde, had begun attacking the internment camps and freeing the captive orcs. Later, Durnholde itself had been razed by this self-styled warchief, crumbling into ruins as Thrall called forth what Jaina had learned was the ancient shamanistic magic of his people. Blackmoore had fallen too, but by all accounts, he would not be mourned overlong. While troubled at what this new Horde might eventually mean for her people, Jaina could not find it in herself to mourn the loss of the camps. Not after what she had seen of them.

Voices reached her ears, one raised in anger. So unusual was that in this place that Jaina slid to an abrupt halt.

“As I told Terenas, your people are prisoners in their own lands. I repeat to you now—humanity is in peril. The tides of darkness have come again, and the whole world is poised upon the brink of war!” The voice was male, resonant and strong, and Jaina did not recognize it.

“Ah, now I know who you must be. You are the rambling prophet who was the subject of King Terenas’s last letter. And I am no more interested in your babble than he is.” The other speaker was Antonidas, as calm as the stranger was insistent. Jaina knew that she should discreetly withdraw before she was noticed, but the same curiosity that had driven the girl she had been to go along with Arthas to spy on the orc encampments now prompted her to cloak herself in invisibility and learn more. She moved closer as quietly as possible. She could see them both now; the first speaker, whom Antonidas had sarcastically referred to as a “prophet,” clad in a cloak and hood decorated with black feathers, and her master on horseback. “I thought Terenas was quite plain in his opinion of your predictions.”

“You must be wiser than the king! The end is near!”

“I told you before, I’m not interested in this nonsense.” Clipped, calm, dismissive. Jaina knew that tone of voice.

The prophet was silent for a moment, then he sighed. “Then I’ve wasted my time here.”

Before Jaina’s startled gaze, the stranger’s shape blurred. It compressed and shifted, and where an instant before a man in a cowled robe had stood, now there was only a large black bird. With a caw of frustration, it sprang skyward, flapping its wings, and was gone.

His eyes still on the interloper, now a vanishing dot in the blue sky, Antonidas said, “You can show yourself now, Jaina.”

Heat washed over Jaina’s face. She murmured a counterspell and edged forward. “I’m sorry for eavesdropping, Master, but—”

“It’s your inquisitive nature that I’ve come to rely on, child,” Antonidas said, chuckling a little. “That crazed fool’s convinced that the world’s about to end. That’s taking the whole ‘plague’ thing a bit far, in my opinion.”

“Plague?” Jaina started.

Antonidas sighed and dismounted, sending his steed off with an amiable slap to the rear. The horse pranced a little, then trotted obediently off to the stables, where a groom would attend to him. The archmage beckoned to his apprentice, who stepped forward and took the outstretched, gnarled hand. “You will recall I sent some messengers to Capital City a short time ago.”

“I thought that was regarding the orc situtation.” Antonidas murmured an incantation, and a few moments later they appeared in his private quarters. Jaina loved this place; loved the untidiness, the smell of parchment and leather and ink, and the old chairs into which one could curl and lose oneself in knowledge. He gestured for her to sit and with the crook of a finger had a pitcher pour nectar for them.

“Well, that was on the agenda, yes, but my representatives thought that a more dire threat was at our doorstep.”

“More dire than the Horde re-forming?” Jaina extended her hand, and the crystal goblet, filled with golden liquid, floated into her palm.

“Orcs, potentially, could be reasoned with. Disease cannot. There are reports of a plague spreading in the northlands. Something I think the Kirin Tor should be paying close attention to.”

Jaina peered at him, her brow furrowing as she sipped. Generally disease fell under the auspices of the priests, not magi. Unless—

“You think it’s magical in nature somehow?”

He nodded his bald head. “It’s a strong possibility. And that’s why, Jaina Proudmoore, I am asking you to travel to these lands and investigate the matter.”

Jaina nearly choked on her nectar. “Me?”

He smiled gently. “You. You have learned nearly everything I have to teach. It’s time you utilized those skills outside of the safety of these towers.” His eyes twinkled again. “And I have arranged for a special envoy to assist you.”

Arthas lounged against a tree, turning his face up to the weak sunlight and closing his eyes. He knew he radiated calmness and confidence; he had to. His men were worrying enough for all of them. He couldn’t let them see that he, too, was anxious. After all this time…how would they get along? Maybe it hadn’t been so smart a decision after all. But all the reports had been glowing, and he knew she had the most level of heads. It would work out all right. It had to.

One of his captains, Falric, whom Arthas had known for years, stomped about, going a little way down one of the four paths at this crossroads, then returning to venture a short distance down another. His breath was visible in the chill, and his irritation was obviously growing by the minute. “Prince Arthas,” he finally ventured, “we’ve been waiting here for hours. Are you sure this friend of yours is coming?”

Arthas’s lips curved in a slight smile as he answered without opening his eyes. The men had not been told, for reasons of security. “I’m sure.” He was. He thought about all the other times he had patiently waited for her. “Jaina usually runs a little late.”

No sooner had the words left his lips than he heard a distant bellow and the barely decipherable words, “Me SMASH!”

Like a panther dozing in the sun only to waken instantly alert, Arthas sprang to attention, hammer in hand. He started down the road, to see a slender, feminine shape racing toward him as she crested the hill into his vision. Behind her loomed what he knew to be an elemental—a swirling blob of aqua-colored water, with a crude head and limbs.

And behind that…were two ogres.

“By the Light!” cried Falric, starting to race forward. Arthas would have beaten him to the girl except for the fact that right at that moment, he caught sight of Jaina Proudmoore’s face.

She was grinning.

“Stay your blade, Captain,” Arthas said, feeling his own lips curve into a grin. “She can take care of herself.”

And so indeed the lady could—and efficiently. At that precise moment Jaina wheeled and began to summon fire. Arthas realized that if he was going to feel sorry for anyone in this conflict, it was the poor baffled ogres, bellowing in pain as fire licked their pudgy, pale forms and staring in shock at the tiny human female responsible for such astonishing agony. One of them had the sense to run, but the other, seemingly unable to believe it, kept coming. Jaina sent a blast of rumbling orange flame at it again, and it cried out and collapsed, burning to death quickly, the rank scent of charred flesh filling Arthas’s nostrils.

Jaina watched the second one flee, dusted her hands off, and nodded. She hadn’t even broken a sweat.

“Gentlemen, meet Miss Jaina Proudmoore,” Arthas drawled, walking up to his childhood friend and former lover. “Special agent to the Kirin Tor, and one of the most talented sorceresses in the land. Looks like you haven’t lost your touch.”

She turned to face him, smiling up at him. There was no awkwardness in this moment, only happiness. She was glad to see him, and he her, the pleasure swelling inside him. “It’s good to see you again.”

So much in so few, almost formal words. But she understood him. She had always understood him. Her eyes were sparkling as she replied, “You, too. It’s been a while since a prince escorted me anywhere.”

“Yes,” he said, a slight hint of ruefulness coloring his tone. “It has.” Now it was awkward, and Jaina looked down and he cleared his throat. “Well, I guess we should get under way.”

She nodded, dismissing the elemental with a wave of her hand. “I don’t need this fellow with such stalwart soldiers,” she said, gifting Falric and his men with one of her best smiles. “So, Your Highness, what do you know about this plague we’re to investigate?”

“Not much,” Arthas was forced to confess as they fell into step. “Father just now sent me to work with you. Uther’s been fighting with me against the orcs most recently. But I’d guess that if the Dalaran wizards want to find out more about it, it’s got something to do with magic.”

She nodded, still smiling, although her brow was starting to furrow in that familiar fashion. Arthas felt an odd pang as he noticed it. “Quite right. Although exactly how, I’m not sure. That’s why Master Antonidas sent me to observe and report back. We should check out the villages along the King’s road. Talk to the inhabitants—see if they know anything useful. Hopefully they have not been infected and this is nothing more serious than a localized outbreak of some sort.”

He, who knew her so well, could hear the doubt in her voice. He understood it. If Antonidas really believed it wasn’t serious, he wouldn’t have sent his prized apprentice to check it out—nor would King Terenas have sent his son.

He changed the topic. “I wonder if it had anything to do with the orcs.” At her raised eyebrow, he continued. “I’m sure you’ve heard about the escapes from the internment camps.”

She nodded. “Yes. I sometimes wonder if that little family we saw was among those who escaped.”

He shifted uneasily. “Well, if they are, they might still be worshipping demons.”

Her eyes widened. “What? I thought that was stamped out long ago—that the orcs were no longer using demonic energy.”

Arthas shrugged. “Father sent Uther and me to help defend Strahnbrad. By the time I got there, orcs had already begun kidnapping villagers. We hunted them down at their encampment, but three men were…sacrificed.”

Jaina was listening now as she always did, not just with her ears but with her whole body, concentrating on every word with the focus that he remembered. Light, but she was beautiful.

“The orcs said they were offering them up to their demons. Called it a paltry sacrifice—clearly they wanted more.”

“And Antonidas seems to think this plague is magical in nature,” Jaina murmured. “I wonder if there is a connection. It’s disheartening to hear that they have reverted so. Perhaps it is only a single clan.”

“Perhaps—or perhaps not.” He recalled how Thrall had fought in the ring, recalled how even those ragtag orcs had put up a surprisingly good fight. “We can’t afford to take risks. If we’re attacked, my men have standing orders to kill them all.” Briefly, he thought about the fury that raged in him when the orc leader had sent back his response to Uther’s offer of surrender. The two men who had been sent in to parley had been killed, their horses returning riderless in a wordless, brutal message.

“Let’s get in there and destroy the beasts!” he’d cried, the weapon he had been given at his initiation into the Silver Hand glowing brightly. He would have charged in immediately had not Uther placed a restraining hand on his arm.

“Remember, Arthas,” he had said, his voice calm, “we are paladins. Vengeance cannot be a part of what we must do. If we allow our passions to turn to bloodlust, then we will become as vile as the orcs.”

The words penetrated the anger—somewhat. Arthas had clenched his teeth, watching as the frightened horses, their riders butchered, were led away. Uther’s words were wisdom, but Arthas felt he had failed the men who’d been on those horses. Failed them, just as he’d failed Invincible, and now they were as dead as that great beast. He took a deep, steadying breath. “Yes, Uther.”

His calmness had been rewarded—Uther had charged him with leading the attack. If only he’d been in time to save those three poor men.

A gentle hand on his arm called him back to the present, and without thinking, out of old habit, he covered Jaina’s hand with his own. She started to pull away, then gave him a slightly strained smile.

“It’s so very, very good to see you again,” he said impulsively.

Her smile softened, became genuine, and she squeezed his arm. “You, too, Your Highness. By the way, thanks for holding your man back when we met.” The smile became a full-fledged grin. “I told you once before, I’m not a fragile little figurine.”

He chuckled. “Indeed not, my lady. You will fight alongside us in these battles.”

She sighed. “I pray there is no fighting—only investigating. But I will do what I must. I always have.”

Jaina withdrew her hand. Arthas hid his disappointment. “As we all do, my lady.”

“Oh stop that. I’m Jaina.”

“And I’m Arthas. Nice to meet you.”

She shoved him then, and they laughed, and suddenly a barrier was gone between them. His heart warmed as he looked down at her, at his side once again. They were facing real danger together for the first time. He was conflicted. He wanted to keep her safe, but he also wanted to let her shine in her abilities. Had he done the right thing? Was it too late? He’d told her that he wasn’t ready, and that had been true—he hadn’t been ready for a lot of things then. But much had changed since that Winter Veil. And some things hadn’t changed at all. All kinds of emotions tore at him, and he pushed them all away except one: simple pleasure in her presence.

They made camp that night before dusk, in a small clearing close to the road. There was no moonlight, only the stars, glittering in the ebony darkness above them. Jaina jokingly lit the fire, conjured some delicious breads and beverages, then declared, “I’m done.” The men laughed and obligingly prepared the rest of the meal, skewering rabbits over spits and unpacking fruits. Wine was passed around, and the feeling was almost more of a group of comrades enjoying the evening than a battle-ready unit investigating a deadly plague.

Afterward, Jaina sat a little bit away from the group. Her eyes were on the skies, a smile playing on her lips. Arthas joined her and offered her more wine. She held out her goblet while he poured and then took a sip.

“This is a lovely vintage, Your H—Arthas,” she said.

“One of the benefits of being a prince,” he replied. He stretched out his long legs and lay down next to her, one arm behind his head as a pillow, the other arm holding the goblet steady on his chest as he looked up at the stars. “What do you think we’re going to find?”

“I don’t know. I was sent as an investigator. I do wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with demons, though, given your encounter with the orcs.”

He nodded in the darkness, then, realizing she couldn’t see him, said, “I agree. I wonder if we shouldn’t have brought a priest along with us now.”

She turned to smile at him. “You’re a paladin, Arthas. The Light works through you. Plus, you swing a weapon better than any priest I’ve seen.”

He grinned at that. The moment hung between them, and just as he started to reach out a hand to her, she sighed and got to her feet, finishing the wine.

“It’s late. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted. I’ll see you in the morning. Sleep well, Arthas.”

But he couldn’t sleep. He tossed and turned in his bedroll, staring up at the sky, the night sounds contriving to catch his attention even when he did start to drift off. He could take it no more. He’d always been impulsive, and he knew it, but dammit—

He threw back the blankets and sat up. The camp was still. They were in no danger here, so there was no one set to watch. Quietly, Arthas rose and went to the area where he knew Jaina was sleeping. He knelt down beside her and brushed her hair back from her face.

“Jaina,” he whispered, “wake up.”

As she had done that night so long ago, she again awoke in silence and unafraid, blinking up at him curiously.

He grinned. “You up for an adventure?”

She tilted her head, smiling, the memories obviously coming back to her as well. “What sort of an adventure?” she countered.

“Trust me.”

“I always have, Arthas.”

They spoke in whispers, their breath visible in the cold night air. She was propped up on one elbow now, and he imitated her, reaching with his other hand to touch her face. She did not pull back.

“Jaina…I think there was a reason we were brought together again.”

There it was, the little furrow in her brow. “Of course. Your father sent you because—”

“No, no. More than that. We’re working together as a team now. We—we work well that way.”

She was very still. He continued to caress the smooth curve of her cheek.

“I—when this is all over—maybe we can…talk. You know.”

“About what ended at Winter Veil?”

“No. Not about endings. About beginnings. Because things have felt very incomplete to me without you. You know me like no one else does, Jaina, and I’ve missed that.”

She was silent for a long moment, then sighed softly and leaned her cheek into his hand. He shivered as she turned her head and kissed his palm.

“I have never been able to deny you, Arthas,” she said, a hint of laughter in her voice. “And yes. It feels incomplete to me, too. I’ve missed you very much.”

Relief washed over him and he leaned forward, wrapping her in his arms and kissing her passionately. They would get to the bottom of this mystery together, solve it, and come home heroes. Then they’d get married—maybe in the spring. He wanted to see her showered with rose petals. And later there’d be those fair-haired children Jaina had talked about.

They were not intimate, not here, surrounded as they were by Arthas’s men, but he did join her under the blankets until the steely dawn called him reluctantly back to his own bed. Before he left, though, he caught her in his arms and held her tightly.

He did sleep a little then, secure in the knowledge that nothing—no plague, no demon, no mystery could stand up to the joined efforts of Prince Arthas Menethil, paladin of the Light, and Lady Jaina Proudmoore, mage. They’d see it through together—whatever it took.