A Worthy Foe

Old Grundel did not move fast anymore when he could help it. He plodded on ponderously, placing each foot with precision and leaning on his six-foot wholly iron spear like a walking cane. The spear was heavy, and occasionally he ruminated on leaving it behind, but could not bring himself to do so. The weapon had been with him since his very first raid and had saved his life countless times. A small stone urn and an iron scimitar with a bronze handle were belted at his waist, but beyond that he wore no garments to protect him from the elements. Unlike humans, he had no external sex organs to mask. As with all Orcs, his hide was thick and tough, forming chitinous spikes on his shoulders, knees, heels and elbows, as well as atop his red-haired pate. His dragonesque yellow eyes were narrowed against the billowing dust sweeping the empty plain, and he breathed through the slits carved into the flat stretch of face between orbs and fanged maw.

Where once his hide had been void-black, though, now it grew ashier every day, and aches and pains plagued him from dawn till dusk. Old Grundel knew he was nearing the time when almighty Gilgamoth would reach down and pluck out his soul the way Orcs plucked out the skulls and spines of their enemies. That was why he had come here, to the shore of the Dragon Sea on the west coast of Albiog, one last time. As soon as he saw the thin blue line of the ocean on the horizon, his powerful heart skipped a beat and a sad smile stole over his broad visage.

“Look, Thelena,” he murmured in Orcish to the soughing wind, “it’s just as beautiful as I remember, if not more so. Not long now, my love.”

He fancied he could hear her contented sigh on the breeze.

His spear crunching in the soft beige sand with every other step, leaving a clear trail in his wake, he traipsed on. The sun was plunging down towards its plum pit off the edge of the world by the time he reached the beach and the lapping waters. The colours of passion played along the horizon, purples, pinks, reds and yellows melding seamlessly into a peachy haze that seemed to somehow transcend colour as if the eyes were finally seeing the world for what it truly was rather than by the arbitrary terms each race had assigned to represent different concepts. Grundel wondered at times whether different races even meant the same thing when they spoke of the same concept; perhaps Goblins saw blue where Orcs saw red, he pondered. Who could know?

A wolf awaited him on the beach, sitting calmly on the sand. Its tawny eyes locked on to his own as soon as he saw it, and his heart lurched in his breast, making him gasp. He stopped and stood and stared for several minutes, and then the wolf bowed to him, rose and stalked away along the beach, its silver fur rippling in the sea breeze. He did not follow it, for all Orcs knew that wolves were sacred, to be left alone at all times. His breath came in ragged judders, and a chill swept through him like an ice wind. His heart sang and pranced for joy though, glowing like a lit coal within him, for he knew it was a sign. He fell to his knees in the sand and dropped his spear, overwhelmed, his soul so full he thought it would burst.

“Thank you, Gilgamoth,” he managed to growl through a tight throat.

Squawking, a soaring seagull overhead cocked its head to glance down at old Grundel askance and he almost laughed.

“Nothing to concern yourself with,” he told the bird. “Just a foolish old Orc.”

Rising, he took the urn from his belt and approached the ocean. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath as he felt the waves crash against his toes, chilling and wetting them, and a shiver swept through him. He felt peaceful, though. The cold was a distant discomfort, for inside he felt an upwelling of warmth and knew Gilgamoth was looking down on him fondly. The air tasted sweet and salty on his tongue, and he smacked his lips, relishing it. He stood there for a while, taking in the panoramic view of the sunset. Then, he took the lid off the urn and upturned it. The wind scattered the ashes in the urn in an instant, whipping them this way and that like a thin mist and then carrying them out to sea. They dissipated within seconds, and once more old Grundel was left looking at nothing more than a riotous sky above a glittering, reflective sea.

Two sunsets confronted him, one winking at him mischievously as waves rolled across it. Somehow the imagery was soothing, as if he were staring down through the veil between worlds to a beauteous afterlife. He sighed and abandoned the water, picking up his spear and slogging up the sloping beach once more until he found a wind-smoothed boulder on which to sit. Though cold and hard, the striated grey rock made a perfect seat for old Grundel then. Something about its inhospitality matched his own spirit, his own desire for callousness and loneliness. Old Grundel knew not how long he sat and ogled the garish vista over the ocean, but the sunset did not wane, rather seeming content to keep him company.

He was lost in the pink stripes in the sky when the sound of swishing sand behind him brought old Grundel hurtling back to reality, and he stood and spun in a single smooth movement, iron spear in hand, to behold a troop of human riders. All four of them sat their dun mounts, wordlessly staring at the lone Orc. One was far older than the other three, with grey streaks in his dark hair and deep lines cut into his hard face. He wore an otter fur coat, a woollen tunic and buckskin riding breeches. The other three wore only faded tunics and trousers. The older man’s lips turned downwards at the corners, as did his black moustache. The other three were beardless youths, dark-haired, skinny bronze-skinned wretches on whom old Grundel could smell the nerves. All carried iron-tipped spears and had daggers belted at their waists, however, and that made them dangerous.

They were far enough away that old Grundel could not hear the older man as he leaned over to speak to the others and then dismounted, while the rest remained on their steeds. The older man dropped his spear, put his hands in the air in the universal signal for peace and began to slowly walk down the beach towards the Orc. Rather than come directly to meet him, however, the man surprised old Grundel by veering away and instead dropping his rump on a boulder some ten feet from the Orc. He sat for a short while then, taking in the sunset.

Impatient, old Grundel eventually sat back down on his own boulder and snapped in crude Traveller’s, “Why you here? What you want?”

The man turned to regard the Orc with an open face, without an ounce of anger in his dark eyes. He smoothed his moustache and then said in gentle tones in the same tongue, “I am sorry to disturb you on your pilgrimage, my friend, for it looks as though you were lost in the makings of the world … Pray tell, what is your name?”

The Orc eyed the man suspiciously. “Grundel. What is yours?”

The man grinned and bowed his head. “They call me Batzorig Khan.”

“Hmph,” old Grundel grunted, unsure what else to say.

He recognised the name ‘Khan’ for what it was; a title of superiority amongst the humans, a title that denoted the leader of a clan, like an Orcish Warmaker.

“It is nice to meet you, Grundel,” said Batzorig amicably, “but we cannot allow you to trespass on Fox Clan territory without punishment. We must make an example out of you. I hope you understand.”

Old Grundel blinked in surprise. He was confident he did understand the situation, and yet the man’s soothing voice was completely at odds with his words, throwing the Orc off balance.

“You want kill me?” he sought clarification.

Batzorig nodded with a wry expression. “I’m afraid so, yes. These young’uns, you see, I was taking them on a hunting trip to try to teach them the ways of the world and … well, I could not pass up the opportunity to teach them how to hunt a vagrant Orc when the chance arose. So, we have been trailing you most of the day.” He sighed. “In truth, though, I do not know if I am doing the right thing. I’m not sure they’re ready for this.” He gestured to the Orc. “I’m not sure if we should have just stayed well away from you. Regardless, we’re here now and these young boys – they need training. They need action, they need combat. They need to be tested, to be blooded. And I hope you can help with that.”

Old Grundel’s brow was furrowing more and more. He was sure this man wanted him dead, so why was he speaking to him in such a friendly fashion? He considered leaping up and stabbing the Khan with his spear, but somehow such an act seemed dishonourable in his mind after the man’s lack of physical provocation.

“Tell me, my friend, what are you doing here?” Batzorig asked unexpectedly.

“I not your friend,” old Grundel growled reflexively.

The Khan shrugged. “I do not believe in enemies. I believe only in friends that you have to kill from time to time to maintain order. There are no enemies. Only order to be maintained. So, yes, Orc, you are my friend.”

“You want kill me!”

“Yes, but that does not change the fact.” Batzorig cocked his head as though the Orc were espousing odd thoughts.

“Leave me alone,” old Grundel rumbled in his bass tones, turning away from the man. “I come here to scatter ashes of my mate, not fight. I see wolf, and I know Thelena thanks me from life after this one.”

The Khan blinked in surprise, regarding the Orc with growing interest. “Did I understand you right just now? Did you say you came here to scatter your mate’s ashes?”

“Yes.”

“I see. And what is the relevance of the wolf you say you saw?”

Old Grundel bristled at having to explain Orcish religion to the man, but for some reason he could not fully explain, he complied. “Orcs taken by Gilgamoth at death, brought back as wolves roaming steppes. I see wolf. I see Thelena. She thank me for scattering ashes.”

Batzorig puffed out his cheeks in astonishment. “Wow. So, you believe that was your mate you saw? Your mate was the wolf? Remarkable. I had no idea Orcs harboured such beliefs. I’ve rarely met one that can speak Traveller’s, though, I suppose.”

“All Orc speak Traveller’s,” old Grundel grunted, “just not at you.”

The Khan’s jaw hung slack for a moment, and then he laughed uproariously, slapping his thigh. “Of course they do! I should have known. Crafty creatures. I will be sorry to see you go, my friend. You have already taught me so much about Orc culture.”

“Why you here?” old Grundel demanded. “Why you need blood?”

Batzorig cocked his head again. “As I understand it, you Orcs have a similar ritual, no? Isn’t that why you take the skulls and spines of your victims? As trophies?”

Old Grundel nodded, watching the man suspiciously; he knew a little too much about Orcs. “Yes, trophies.”

“Well then, surely you understand what I am trying to do for these young’uns here? I am blooding them. My plan was for them to kill a buck, but they have done that before. No, for a true blooding, I knew I would need to pit them against a true warrior, someone who can fight back. And then I spotted your tracks, and I knew from the prints that you were old and slow. And I thought perfect. This will be the perfect introduction to combat for my young friends. Killing an old Orc trespassing on our clan’s land. I couldn’t have asked for anything better. So, thank you, Orc, for being here.”

“You not thank me when you dead,” old Grundel warned.

The Khan laughed. “No, I don’t suppose I would. Anyway, as I’m sure you can appreciate, we could have tossed a spear at you from a distance and skewered you like a pig, but that is not what I wanted to do. I want you to face them in combat, eye to eye, and I want them to see you die. D’you think you can help me with that, Orc? Can you fight them for me?”

Old Grundel was confused. Frowning, he replied, “I fight for me. I kill for me. Be careful, human. You pit them on me, you not see them again.”

Batzorig’s smile broadened. “It’s three against one. Don’t overstate your chances, my friend. It is you who will hit the sand this day.”

Old Grundel shook his head and rose to his feet once more, spear in hand glinting in the light of the sunset. “Gilgamoth will decide.”

“Gilgamoth?” asked the Khan, still sitting. “Is that your God?”

“Yes.”

“How do you worship him?”

“With blood. With skulls and spines.”

“Hmm.” Batzorig nodded thoughtfully, stroking his moustache. “Interesting. We Nagali worship the Sky Father and believe that we will dwell with him one day as stars in the sky. Perhaps Sky Father is merely another name for Gilgamoth. Perhaps they are one and the same. Who knows?”

Old Grundel was taken aback. He had never considered that possibility his entire life. “No,” he said uncertainly. “Gilgamoth not Sky Father. Gilgamoth far greater than Sky Father.”

“Greater than the sky?” the Khan repeated sceptically, puffing out his cheeks and waving towards the firmament. “I’m not so sure about that, my friend.”

“Not friend,” old Grundel grumbled. “Gilgamoth greatest.”

Batzorig chortled. “Whatever you say, my friend. Now, it looks as though my three young companions over there are champing at the bit, so are you ready?”

“You not leave me alone,” old Grundel pointed out morosely. “You not give me choice.”

The Khan nodded with an almost apologetic smile. “That’s true. I’ll let them know you’re ready.”

Rising, he strode calmly back up the beach, seemingly sure old Grundel would not put a spear in his back. Old Grundel wondered if the only reason he did not was the Khan’s ineffable surety. It was dishonourable to stab a foe in the back, regardless; better to look them in the eye as this man advocated. Old Grundel felt a strange warmth within as he watched the Khan walk away and realised with a start that he had finally encountered a human he did not want to kill – not that that would stop him.

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