Eli instinctively thrust up his pitchfork toward the Dark Iron. “Dinna ye lay a hand on the gryphon, lad.”
The Dark Iron’s eyes widened at the sight of the pitchfork pointed at him. “Ye see this, lads?” he said to the other Dark Irons. “A Wildhammer raisin’ a weapon against us.”
Eli hastily lowered his pitchfork. “Dinna make this into somethin’ it’s not.”
Five gryphon riders squatting close by rose to their feet. One of them stepped forward and jabbed his finger into the Dark Iron’s armored chest.
“Take the rest o’ yer swill an’ be on yer way,” the Wildhammer said.
Kurdran could sense it coming. The cauldron boiling up, its fiery contents rising higher and higher. After the troubling revelation about Modimus’s hammer, a brawl was the last thing he needed to deal with. He walked toward the Dark Irons, hoping to avert the inevitable.
“Ye Wildhammers would see this city burn before harm ever came tae these beasts!” the Dark Iron roared, and then he turned to his companions. “Give ’em somethin’ tae calm their nerves, lads.”
Without hesitation, two of the Dark Irons heaved their keg into the roost. It soared by Kurdran’s head and came crashing down next to Sky’ree, spraying her and nearby gryphons with Dark Iron spirits.
Rage momentarily welled up inside of Kurdran, and he took a deep breath to regain his composure. He marched to the lead Dark Iron to send him and his clansmen on their way. At seeing Kurdran, the Dark Iron took an involuntary step back, slipping on the straw and landing on the ground with a thud.
Raucous laughter erupted from the gryphon riders. “Just seein’ Kurdran scared the wee bairn!” one of them yelled.
The Dark Iron glanced furtively around, his face awash with humiliation. Finally he rose and stepped forward, inches away from Kurdran. “Butterfly Thane… why dinna ye go back an’ sit in the straw wi’ the rest o’ the animals?” the Dark Iron growled. Then he spat in Kurdran’s face.
The tiny force of the insult dislodged something in Kurdran, something that had been lurking deep inside of him since he had come to Ironforge. The fleeting dream of seeing the skies above Aerie Peak… his decision to give up the heirloom… Sky’ree’s condition. Everything exploded at once, blinding him with fury.
Kurdran’s fist connected with the Dark Iron’s head, sending the other dwarf off his feet.
Without any order to do so, the Wildhammers at Kurdran’s side charged forward. The Dark Irons hurled their kegs at the attackers, who expertly dodged and rolled out of harm’s way. Loud squawks rose from the gryphons as kegs landed throughout the roost, splintering against areas covered in only a thin layer of straw. Then the Wildhammers and the Dark Irons collided, clutching whatever limbs or armor they could grab.
The groups pushed back and forth until the Dark Irons finally lost their balance and crashed into a nearby brazier. Fiery embers erupted from the iron container and caught a nearby mound of straw alight. The fire surged through the surrounding nests, fueled by the Dark Iron spirits.
In seconds, the entire roost was aflame. Smoke billowed up toward the ceiling of the Great Forge. A number of gryphons voiced shrill cries and took to the air, leaving a torrent of feathers, ash, and embers swirling below them.
“Water!” Kurdran roared, stepping over the pile of dwarves on the ground.
From other parts of the Great Forge, dwarves began rushing toward the roost. Gryphons were now circling in the shadowy recesses of the area, but four remained on the ground, three of them huddling around Sky’ree and her nest.
“Sky’ree!” Kurdran yelled. “Get out o’ there!”
From her direction came a cry that made Kurdran clench his eyes shut in pain. It was a sound he hadn’t heard since Outland. A battle cry that had on many occasions been enough to send Sky’ree’s enemies fleeing in terror.
Flames raged around her. Kurdran could barely see Sky’ree through the heavy smoke that covered the roost. One of the gryphons at her side shot upward in a blur, leaving a trail of singed feathers in the air. The two other gryphons rose as well, but they did not flee. They hovered in the air with the talons on their forelegs clutching Sky’ree’s wings, voicing brief caws to each other. In unison, the two gryphons began beating their wings furiously, trying to lift Sky’ree off the ground, but she jerked herself free from the grasp of her kin.
Dwarves started dousing the fire with kegs of water, while a newly arrived pair of gnomes in long flowing robes muttered incantations that sent crystals of ice over the roost. The fire, however, continued to roar. Kurdran moved to strip off his armor, but in his state of shock he could do little more than fumble with the straps. He abandoned the idea and barreled toward the flames.
“Kurdran!” Eli yelled.
The gryphon tender and two other Wildhammers wrapped their arms around Kurdran’s body. Even with three powerful dwarves clinging to him, Kurdran edged closer and closer to the flames. It took another two Wildhammers to finally wrestle him to the ground.
Pinned down, Kurdran could only watch as the two gryphons near Sky’ree fled from the roost, the heat and smoke too much for them to bear any longer. After an agonizing few seconds, Sky’ree slumped to the ground.
When the last burning embers had been extinguished, Eli and the other Wildhammers released Kurdran, and he rushed into the smoldering roost. Sky’ree was there, motionless. Blackened and smoking.
A hand touched Kurdran’s shoulder.
“I… I’m sorry,” Eli said in a hoarse voice.
“Why’d she fight her kin? They were tryin’ tae save her….” Kurdran muttered in disbelief.
“Och… o’ course, lad. She was protectin’ the eggs!” Eli said suddenly.
The two dwarves carefully moved Sky’ree’s body. Underneath, where three pristine eggs had once been, were scattered fragments of charred shells and the half-cooked remains of Sky’ree’s children.
Kurdran stared at the grim sight, speechless.
“She… she tried,” Eli said, and he knelt down in front of the blackened nest.
The crowd around the ruined gryphon roost stood in silence. Even the Dark Irons who had been partly responsible for the fire seemed bewildered and at a loss for words. All eyes were on Kurdran. The smoke roiling around him was tinged with the smell of burnt flesh and straw, and he felt dizzy.
Kurdran wandered out of the Great Forge while gryphons were still circling in the air and the city’s residents were attempting to piece together what had happened. It was all he could do to keep from collapsing. The fire had burned a wound in him, and from it had drained the last remnants of hope, ambition, and joy that had once coursed through his veins.
For hours he sat alone in a sparsely populated tavern with a pint of untouched ale as memories of Sky’ree came to him. Each one was overshadowed by images of her charred corpse. She should have died in battle, or at the very least in the comfort of her home near Aerie Peak. Not in the heart of a mountain.
It was a mistake to come here, Kurdran thought. His regret dredged up reminders of someone whom he had kept almost completely out of his mind for the past few weeks: Falstad.
Falstad had taken over the title of Wildhammer high thane from Kurdran during his years on Outland. After finally returning to Aerie Peak, Kurdran had felt an overwhelming urge to make up for the decades he had been absent from his homeland. Although he hadn’t officially laid claim to his old rank, Kurdran had issued orders to his clan without consulting Falstad, which had undermined the high thane’s position.
Kurdran’s journey to Ironforge was one example of his overzealous attempts to prove that he was the leader he had always been. As current high thane, Falstad had been slated to join the Council of Three Hammers, but Kurdran had snatched the opportunity from him, stating in not-so-subtle words that his friend did not possess the experience to undertake such a task. In the jubilance surrounding Kurdran’s return from Outland, the clan had backed his reasoning. Kurdran could still see the anger and hurt in the high thane’s eyes after all had been said and done, as if Kurdran had felt that Falstad’s twenty years of bravely leading the clan had been meaningless.
Now Kurdran realized the foolishness of what he had done. For the first time, he wished that Falstad could take his place in the city. Not because Kurdran wanted him to endure the tension rife in Ironforge, but because he believed that Falstad was a better dwarf for the job.
No, Kurdran told himself.
Calling upon Falstad, even after everything that had happened, would be a sign of weakness. There was still a means, Kurdran realized, to prevent Ironforge from stripping away all that he held dearest.
There was still something that the city hadn’t taken.
The High Seat was empty when Kurdran stalked through it to Muradin’s throne. Adjacent to the stone seat was the large iron chest where the three pieces of the Modimus hammer were stored. Each council member had been given a large, heavy key to the container. Kurdran slipped his into the lock.
Slowly he opened the chest and withdrew his clan’s scepter. It looked barren and defiled now, stripped of its gryphon feathers and dry strands of grass in preparation for the reforging.
“I knew you would take it back,” said a voice tinged with glee.
Kurdran whirled. Moira was standing at the bottom of the ramp to the thrones, still dressed in her formal wear, holding Dagran in her arms. A shaft of light cut across the High Seat from the open door of her chambers at the back of the room.