Skull and Spine

Dust danced in the air, blown across the plains below by a hot wind. The sun was like a hammer on the nape of a young Orc’s neck as he studied the human merchant caravan clopping across the steppe; five traders swathed in white gauze kaftans and flat-topped caps, some thirty camels laden with sacks and crates and a score of unmounted mercenaries wrapped up in diaphanous grey cloth. Peering through a spyglass, the young Orc could tell that the humans were just as hot as he; they kept wiping their bronze brows and licking chapped lips.

“They look puny from up here without that glass. I told you there would be a caravan along shortly; there always is along this path. It is becoming a popular trade route. So, are you ready for your first kill, Astaroth? Are you ready to pay homage to Gilgamoth? He eagerly awaits his share of blood today …”

The young Orc, Astaroth, handed the spyglass back to the older Orc who had spoken; his father, Bezelbub. “I am ready, father. Gilgamoth will slake his thirst today on human blood, I swear it!”

“Good,” Bezelbub purred, slinging the thong attached to the spyglass over his shoulder. “Good. Now, don’t forget what you must acquire in the heat of battle.”

Astaroth nodded, wondering how he could possibly forget when it had been drilled into him a hundred times in the last month. He pictured eating with his father on the open plain in a dozen different locations; each memory brought with it the same words.

“Don’t forget,” Bezelbub would say with little or no prompting, “you must acquire the skull and spine of an enemy on your first raid. It is tradition. It will make you an adult.”

Astaroth would nod and say resignedly, “Yes, father.”

Just as easily, he could picture his betrothed, Thithil, interrupting their meal – as she did regularly – to command him to find her something pretty for her dowry. “I will not accept anything less than what I am worth,” she would say, tossing her crimson curls over her shoulder. “If you bring me back some nonsensical trinket made of horse-hair or a crude wooden carving like Izamal gave Horagal, then I will not mate with you! Bring me back gold or silver! Bring me back something shiny!”

“I will,” he would promise.

“And kill as many humans as you can,” she would add with a wicked grin that revealed her pointed teeth, stark ivory in contrast to her tar-black hide, “in the sight of as many Orcs as you can! I want my clan to know my mate is powerful! You will be Warmaker one day, yes?”

“If I live up to my father’s legacy,” he would begin to say.

“Yes, he will,” his father would always cut him off.

At that, Astaroth would sigh and say, “Yes, I will.”

“Good,” Thithil would coo, her yellow eyes twinkling like stars. “Good. An Orc with horns such as yours should not be a coward.” Then, she would stroke the long, slightly curved horns that sprouted all over his crown, sticking up from a bed of blood-red locks.

He did have long horns; normally a sign of a great warrior, it was said. Sometimes, he wished they were shorter; then perhaps his clan would not expect such great things of him. He was not sure if he had greatness in him. He was big, yes, but not as big as his father, not as big as some of the other young Orcs in the clan, though he was wider thanks to his broad shoulder-spines. He fought against a runt-like mentality, trying to conquer the confidence his father assured him was his birthright.

Orcs had no hereditary rights; everything they had was earned, but Astaroth’s father assured him breeding would out. He would have the same power as his father, the current Warmaker, if only he tried hard, and Bezelbub would not let him do otherwise. A harsh taskmaster, his father drove him hard from dawn till dusk, trekking, training, learning, whipping him whenever he slowed or failed.

Being the Warmaker’s son was far from easy. Beside the assiduous regime his father instituted, there were other difficulties too, such as the hostility from all the other young male Orcs, who eyed him with envy, eyed him as a rival. Many were the nights the young Orcs got together to drink, smoke baui and swap tales, and many were the nights when Astaroth was silently snubbed at such gatherings, ignored as if he did not exist. The other Orcs would intentionally talk over him whenever he raised his voice, making him snarl in anger.

He had only ever become embroiled in minor altercations with them, however; thinking he was to be their Warmaker one day, he was not sure if he should antagonise them too much. Heated rows were often as far as he went, and only rarely had he squared off with one of his fellows. Often, he wished he had taken greater action against them, wished he had caved in their stupid faces with his fists, and yet he did not. They seemed to brawl among themselves and yet remain friends; he could not understand why a harsh word from him seemed to cause such hatred.

Astaroth glanced askance at the Orcs who had accompanied them; three youths, including Astaroth, and six older warriors, all with skin like the void between stars, hair the colour of sunset and ivory horns sprouting from their scalps. All were accompanied by their Baba Draga, or Baby Dragons in old Orcish; ten-foot-long scaly lizards tall enough to crane their long necks to look a seven-foot Orc in the eye with one of its own yellow orbs. Each had a mane of ivory horns around its neck and smaller spines lining its body, all the way to the tip of its long tail. Of the older Orcs in the raiding party, two were Astaroth’s kin; his father and his uncle.

“He won’t forget what he needs,” his uncle, Luferic, said with a grin and a slap on his back. He was unusually wide for a nomadic Orc, verging on fat, and his cheeks wobbled slightly as he spoke. “Don’t worry, Bezelbub. Gilgamoth will watch over him this day.”

Bezelbub nodded, his gaunt, taut face drawn in a pensive pucker. He mounted and patted his mount’s scaly, green neck absently between the spikes. “I believe he will. Very well then, if all is in readiness, then let us be about it! For Gilgamoth and glory! For Albiog!”

Astaroth swung a leg over his own Draga, Rastafa, seating himself behind the mane of spines. The smaller horns on the lizard’s body hardly bothered the Orc’s thick, naked hide, and he had no external reproductive organ in his groin to protect, unlike the humans. When a female Orc laid a brood of eggs, a male Orc would simply spit his semen over them to fertilise them. The concept of sex, which Astaroth understood humans had to undertake in order to reproduce, seemed strange and disgusting to him, as did the idea of a baby growing inside of its mother rather than externally.

He raised his club over his head and roared with the other Orcs, “Gilgamoth!”

He kicked spiky heels into Rastafa’s sides, which were protected by overlapping, rusty red scales as hard as iron, and the lizard bent his squat, strong legs and sprang up out of the small gully in which they had been hidden and began to skid down the rocky slope toward the merchant caravan. The humans heard and spotted the Orcs coming, of course, and shouted in alarm, pointing up at the shapeless, beige crag that reared tiredly up out of the dusty plains, where the Orcs had waited and planned their ambush.

Rastafa’s clawed feet tore at the earth as he hurtled down the incline, belly close to the ground, elongated snout open in a snarl, baring long fangs. Atop him, Astaroth squeezed desperately with his legs, hooking his heel-spikes under some of the lizard’s body-spines to help keep his balance as he was thrown around. Dust flew into his face, and he narrowed his black eyes and breathed shallowly through the slitted nostrils on the flat plane between his eyes and mouth. He smelled stale dirt and the lizard’s musk and the unfamiliar scent of humans. He heard a scrape as Bezelbub drew a curved sword from its scabbard and wished he had an iron weapon of his own. Orcs fashioned crude wooden clubs for themselves for their first battles, and then upgraded from the spoils upon victory. If he successfully vanquished these merchants and their guards today, Astaroth knew he would have his pick of their shining weapons.

The human mercenaries – all wrapped in billowing grey cloth that covered them from crown to toe, leaving only their eyes bare – arrayed themselves before the camel train in preparation for the attack, drawing and brandishing crescent moons of iron that glittered in the morning sun. The merchants cowered behind them, some hiding behind the camels, others standing in front of them protectively. They held the beasts in check, not wishing to lose their goods; the Orcs could almost have thanked them.

The sky was a blue bowl, the land a rushing brown ocean on which Astaroth sailed towards his prey.

“Hashti wazi!” he hollered ancient words, words passed down from generation to generation, words of power.

His fears were gone now, and he was bursting with energy; giddiness and surrealism whirled around him, replacing reality with a vivid psychedelic vision where the Orc could see every grain of dirt, every fibre of cloth, every wrinkle of skin, every bird in the sky, all at once. He seemed incapable of blinking. Time seemed to slow until an age was trapped in a moment, an eternity in a heartbeat, forever caught in the single flutter of a kite’s wing. This was the Orcs’ hereditary magic; this was what gave them an edge in combat above and beyond their great size and strength.

Time rushed back at him like a torrent and abruptly he was upon the human warriors, almost before he was ready. He mistimed his first club swing thanks to Rastafa’s jerky movements, but luckily the lizard was as combative as its rider and it clawed at another of the humans on the left. Meanwhile, the man Astaroth had missed on the right sprang at him, looking to knock him off his Draga. Startled, Astaroth punched the man in the mouth without thinking and catapulted him back to land on his face in the dirt with a thump. With hashti wazi in effect, Astaroth was strong enough to knock out a camel with a single blow. The human’s scimitar skidded over the young Orc’s leg amid the kerfuffle, but without any force behind it and so it failed to pierce the skin. It took a mighty blow from a sharp weapon to puncture Orc hide.

Momentarily bamboozled by what he had done – it had happened so fast, he thought he might have imagined it – Astaroth then whooped at his small victory and waved his club in a circle above his head. The humans’ sweat was tangy in his nostrils, tasting like fear. Without any directing, Rastafa pounced at another of the human warriors; the lizard ignored the iron in the man’s hand as it bounced harmlessly off his mane of spines and barged him to the ground, stabbing him all over with the spikes on its neck.

Astaroth waited until Rastafa spun and a human came within range before he lashed out again with his gnarly club. This time, he struck true but the man blocked the blow with his blade, vexing the young Orc. Growling and spitting, outraged at the man’s defiance and unwillingness to die, Astaroth brought his club down again and again upon the rude human, whacking madly at him until finally the scimitar bit into the thick club, stuck there and was wrenched out of the human’s hand as Astaroth raised his weapon for another chop.

He hesitated for just an instant when he saw that the human was unarmed, though, and the man dove and rolled away, coming up smoothly with a smaller stretch of iron in his hand from the Gods knew where. The scimitar dropped off the club where it had been wedged and clunked the young Orc on the head with its hilt before bouncing down to the ground. Astaroth cursed himself inwardly; he had missed a chance for an iron weapon and inadvertently given his enemy time to escape.

Fortunately, his uncle was at hand to salvage the situation. Riding up behind the escapee on his blue-black Draga, Luferic bashed the man’s brains out with a stroke of his spiked, iron mace, spraying the ground with gore and splinters of skull. Astaroth hooted and nodded to his uncle, then let Rastafa have his head. The lizard rampaged among the human mercenaries like an armoured Demon, rending left and right with its claws and snapping its great jaws shut on men’s skulls, splitting them like watermelons. Astaroth flailed his club left and right, sometimes missing and sometimes hitting, the great muscles in his arms stretching and bunching, laughing as if crazed. He felt unstoppable atop his Draga, godlike.

Rastafa pawed at a human on his left, while Astaroth whooped and clubbed the shoulder of a man on his right. The Orc’s enemy fell flat in the dust, poleaxed, but the clawed man on the left was not down and lashed out at the lizard. His scimitar glanced harmlessly off the rust-coloured scales, but Rastafa roared in rage, unused to being attacked, and reared up to maul the irksome man with both front claws. 

That was when Astaroth’s whoop transformed into a yelp of fright and he toppled off his Draga to the right, landing on his elbows and knees. He felt no pain from the landing – Orc skin was tough – but he looked up immediately to ascertain his situation. He coughed on the swirling dust for a moment before he could make anything out.

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