I feel like I’m forgetting someone, but this should be it for the introduction chapters.
Ashes to ashes, dust to dust
Chapter 6: Two faced, no face
Mael looked at the orcs gathering in the Great hall and sighed. His brother Tael walked up to him and studied the newcomers as well. He followed Mael’s example and sighed tiredly.
‘What’s Baoc the Axe doing here?’ Tael asks.
‘Your guess is as good as mine.’ Mael says.
‘Another skirmish for Firewell?’
‘Probably, yes. It’s not like those damned Wilds would just come by for a friendly visit. And if they needed supplies they would’ve taken ‘em by now.’
Mael, chief of the Sheepsdust tribe, scratches his head. Tael, the agricultural supervisor and Mael’s twin brother, follows his lead. If it weren’t for their vastly different outfits, it would’ve seemed like either of the two brothers was a reflection in a mirror.
Mael, dressed in the traditional chieftain’s outfit with lots of red and yellow to signify his status and with the Sheepdust’s greyish face paint covering his whole face, looked imposing despite his tired and disinterested expression.
Tael, who seemed like a simple farmer in his woollen cloths and with only some face paint under his eyes and on his lips, was in no regard as imposing. If an outsider were to see him, they wouldn’t even spot them being twins despite Mael and Tael having the exact same expression right now.
And that same outsider would’ve never guessed that Tael was just as powerful around here as Mael, as he was the one in charge of all the shepherds, sheep and even part of their massive wool trade. Pretty much the entire economy and livelihood of the tribe was his responsibility.
‘I think I recognise the runt over there, pretty sure he’s a Yellowdust.’ Tael says.
‘As I feared then. Baoc is making rounds through the villages again asking for ‘volunteers’ for another pointless battle. I wonder how many he’ll demand this time.’ Mael says.
‘There are a few farmhands I can spare, but if he asks for more than a dozen like last time I’m going to have a shortage of people. If only the Wilds would realise their responsibility rather than complaining about the results of the next harvest.’ Tael says.
‘It’s curious as to why he would even be here though. The festival is almost over, so there’s no point in conquering the well. All the pilgrims will be gone by the time we get it anyhow.’ Mael says.
‘I’ve heard the humans have a garrison there of over a hundred men strong.’ Tael says. ‘Mr. Tin helmet is probably demanding such outrageous numbers that it takes a while longer for him to visit all the villages.’ Tael says.
‘A hundred men or more?’ Mael says. ‘Considering their garrisons tend to be real soldiers rather than the militia cannon-fodder Amon usually sends to conquer it… Damn, Baoc is probably going to ask for at least 30 grunts.’
‘Tell him what I told you, that it would screw up the harvest.’ Tael says. ‘Even Wilds understand profits. Complain enough and he’ll fill the numbers with Nihilists instead. I bet that’s what the other tribes did.’
‘Easy said, you know how self-righteous the Wilds see themselves. Even if it’s just some farce battle over a pool they don’t care about, they’ll be outraged when we say we don’t want to waste our blood over it.’ Mael says.
‘It’s your duty as chieftain to protect your tribe from situations like these.’ Tael says.
‘I know, I know. I don’t suppose you want to do it instead?’ Mael asks.
‘I’m not Mael for another week, and thank goodness for that. I was clenching my butt cheeks expecting Tin helmet to appear when it was my turn. So sorry brother, but you drew the shortest straw here.’ Tael says.
‘Fine.’ Mael says. ‘And why are you still referring to Baoc as Tin helmet?’
‘Because he’s not Baoc and you know it.’ Tael says. ‘That barbarian is rotting away somewhere in a shallow grave as we speak.’
‘Come on, Baoc the Axe falls in battle and two weeks later a guy of the same size wearing a helmet at all times is promoted to Commander? It’s just some ruse Thallal is planning to use on the humans.’ Mael says. ‘Face-blind as they are, even human scouts recognise Baoc by the triangular scars on his face. Scars that are conveniently being covered by that helmet.’
‘Because Thallal would just give the humans a win like that, and then not use this trick for a whole year.’ Tael says. ‘No, this is just a poor attempt to make it seem as if Baoc is still alive so the Dusts and Nihilists won’t know one of the Wilds strongest warriors has been slain.’
‘He’s dedicated to the bit, though.’ Both brothers say in unison.
‘Aw crap, he spotted me.’ Mael says.
‘Good luck, brother.’ Tael says.
Tael walks away as Baoc(?) approaches Mael. The large orc stops just a second short of bumping into Mael, making sure his massive muscular frame lumbers over the middle-aged chieftain.
As Baoc stands still and says nothing for a few seconds to make full use of his intimidating size, all Mael can think of is:
Did he have that scar before?
Mael says nothing as he studies the scar pattern on Baoc’s chest, looking for proof that this is indeed the same jerk as last year. But unlike the three characteristic scars on his face forming a triangle, he couldn’t for the life of him remember what the scars on Baoc’s body looked like.
’50 grunts, I want them gathered here ready to depart tomorrow morning.’ Baoc says.
‘Just 5 grunts? Not a very big demand this time. Good, good.’ Mael says.
‘I said fifty.’
‘Yes, yes. I know. 5 grunts. I heard ya.’
‘Don’t worry. You’ve got a strange way of pronouncing five, must be the helmet muffling your voice. But I heard you regardless.’
‘I SAID FIFTY, YOU MONGREL!’
‘Why thank you. No one ever compared me to Monegral* before, such a compliment.’
*A famous troll commander from the first blight war.
‘You insolent… Forty.’ Baoc says.
‘Oh, fourteen? Hm, that might be a bit tougher. We’re already a bit short-handed for the next harvest. I don’t suppose you’d be willing to go down to eight?’
‘WEAK OLD FOOL! I’M HERE ON DIRECT AUTHORITY OF THALLAL, DO NOT DISOBEY HIM YOU…!’
Teal shuts out Tin helmet’s shouting as he walks into the great hall. Those Wilds sure know how to shout, good thing it’s not against him this time.
There were thirty orcs gathered here. Young ones, each one of them. And few of them with a lot of muscle mass or actual courage in their eyes. Only four of them seemed excited about the mission, the rest knew the futility of their sacrifice.
We orcs love the battle, we yearn for the thrill and dream of the glory. But in the outskirt we were taught from when we were young that there was no glory to be had in these parts. Mothers would not tell their children tales of legendary heroes, and fathers would not boast about their skirmishes. Instead, mothers would tell their children that the commander would one day come asking for soldiers and that you should pray that you would not be chosen, and fathers would either have no tales to tell or be dead in a grave.
Yes, it pained Tael to say, but the Wilds for whom none wanted to die had extinguished the flame of passion that drove the orcs. They had taken battle and turned it into something that not even the most starry-eyed youngling could fool themselves to believe in.
There were a few, those who were part of the collective armies that didn’t participate in the Firewell conflict, who could be called warriors. But compared to their brethren elsewhere in the world, the Dusts were no longer the warrior race they once were. Them, the lot of sheep herders, being the most powerful Dust tribe around here said as much.
Tael studied the faces of the runts, his gaze passing from one nervous child to the next, looking for a specific trait. He only saw youth, so young that they hadn’t even gotten a chance at living but also too young to leave a family behind.
It was a sad fact, but the Sheepdusts too would select a few runts who would only be missed by their mothers. The Wilds wanted them to select the orcs who had passed on their genes and could now die as men, but both Mael and Tael knew that an orc with a family was less likely to rebel than a youngster. It was easier to keep the Wild’s paranoia from acting up this way.
‘You are from the Silverdusts, aren’t you?’ Tael asks a runt as he finally finds the trait he’s looking for. Hands without callus on them.
‘Uhm, yes? What’s it to you?’ The runt asks.
‘How has the festival sale been going? Have we been getting good trade from the pilgrims this year?’
‘I dunno. Me and Ricko over there were recruited two weeks before the festival began. Barely any newcomers had arrived when we left.’
‘Ah, that’s a shame. We haven’t been getting any recent reports about the wool sale, so I don’t know whether we should be working harder or don’t need to make over-hours at all.’
‘Who cares? Those pilgrims aren’t carrying much coin these last years as it is. Not when the blight is raging everywhere driving taxes up like crazy and forcing everyone to fight.’
‘True, true. Sales have been disappointing these last few years.’ Tael says.
‘What would you know about that, old man?’ The runt sneers. ‘We Silvers are the merchants around here, you’re just some shepherd. I bet you don’t even know how to count to ten.’
Teal chuckles. ‘I’m not the one marching into battle despite not having worked a day of hard labour in my life, am I?’
The runt flinches. ‘What do you mean? They demanded me to go, I didn’t volunteer.’
‘I know. But your chieftain chose you, which means you must have been at the bottom of your class. The one they could miss the most. The one who they deemed the least likely to become a good merchant.’
The runt swallows. It’s mean, but Tael loved to put youngsters in their place when they didn’t respect their elders. And it wasn’t as if this kid knew anything of importance anyway. Before the runt can reply with something skating, Tael leaves.
A dead desert. A landscape that is constantly moving but with no life to explain this change. An inhospitable hell of wind, sand and salt. The endless salt desert changed not when the immortals claimed it, nor was the blight even noticeable in the ground around here.
Maybe not even the blight can survive in these lands? An amusing thought.
Just like the desert, the encampment changed little since death claimed it. The slaves walked the same, the average intelligence level remained unchanged, and everyone looked just as decrepit as before. Only the smell got worse, while the noise got less.
Scar looked at the sea of death beneath him with an absent interest, the same way one studies a fly buzzing around or a raindrop sliding down a surface. A few of the undead were slowly wandering in his direction, but their gait did not mix well with walking up uphill through this loose sand. It would take them a while before they’d reach him.
So for just a while longer, he’d like to take in the view. A horde of undead, seven thousand heads strong, all moving slowly into a single direction. The slaves that were once moaning and whimpering as whips were cracked at their backs were now moving in unison with their slavers without complaint. They all knew what to do and they all did it.
There was a strange poetic justice to it. Those who had died when they arrived here were now claimed to become the slave army they were destined to be. But that slave army was marching towards the very people who had enslaved them, and would be the Wilds’ undoing.
That, and their own arrogance. The Wilds were relying on the advantages of having no weapons in the encampment, when a single blighted one wandered in from the Endless salt desert, they had no way of stopping him. There were only whips and chains to stop them here, and when the blight spread those soon proved to be worthless.
There was a lot of shouting and screaming the first day. A lot of chewing and some screaming the second. Scar was the last survivor on the third day. The other 7500 inhabitants of the encampment were now all on a march towards Thugs wall. Well, all but a few who wandered off elsewhere or were buried by the sands. But the ones who marched before him outnumbered even the three tribes combined.
Scar wondered what his nephew Thallal would do about this. No Machiavellian schemes or unhonourable assassinations could save him from this army, nor could the other two tribes to act as a cushion this time.
Would Thallal rise up and become an actually respectable commander in the tribe’s most dire hour?
Scar laughed. No, that would never happen. In the end Thallal was nothing but a spoiled coward, and even if he were a great commander he couldn’t do much about an army of 7000 marching at the gates where only 600 were stationed. Not now all of those 7000 would survive the trek there and none of them needed swords or bows to fend for themselves. The outskirt was done for.
Scar absentmindedly nibbled on the salted meat. Troll meat tasted terrible and there were still grains of sand mixed in with the salt despite his best efforts. But it was edible and he could eat anything as long as it wouldn’t kill him. One does not have a refined palette after eighteen years in the encampment, not after three revolts and the starvation that came after them.
The battered orc looked quite imposing as he stood up and casted his shadow over the hill he adorned. While Baddac Wild, once known as the Scar Lord, was no longer dressed in fine garments and the malnutrition had taken from him his muscular build, the trials he had been through made him only more impressive to behold.
His once green skin sunburned yellow, his right ear torn, his fingernails grown into talons after years without maintaining them, his tattered clothes of scrapped together origins and the many scars that adorned every inch of his skin. Every other orc would look like a broken spirit or a savage animal like this, but not Scar.
Scar looked like power. Like the personification of an unbendable will. Like a survivor who would stop at nothing to keep on living. The club made out of a troll’s leg bone and the many Goblin-bone shivs only added to that image.
Scar hopped a bit to test the binds around him. The whips he used as ropes weren’t comfortable and grinded into his shoulders, but they would hold. He’d hate having sand get onto the elven corpse he was carrying on his back.
Because unlike troll meat, or any meat for that matter, elven meat didn’t perish as quickly. Sure, it would rot eventually, but much slower. Especially after Scar drained the blood from the elf, something that was a piece of cake when the elf’s heart was still pumping. He’d never eat it all before it would go bad, but unlike the poorly salted troll meat it would last long enough.
Scar looked at the remainders of his rations. He had plenty of meat, but as always water was the problem. The elf blood would have to be a last resort. The water he did have, taken from the stash the slavers buried a few miles from the encampment to survive the way back to the Gate, was enough to survive under normal conditions. But this time he’d have to travel through the scorching sun for at least a week, probably more.
He looked at the invisible destination of the horde. Thugs wall. Should he take his chances there after all? He could outrun the horde, but there were bound to be a few undead goblins who left the encampment prematurely already being a nuisance to the guards. It wasn’t impossible that he could slip by in the confusion.
No, the gate was a no-go. No one ever managed to get by there without sheer luck, and now that the place was teeming with the undead he couldn’t even be patiently wait for an opening. He had to stick to the original plan.
Travel to Li, follow the mountain tops on the horizon to Lo, and find this legendary hidden passage in the mountains. He knew that there was no such passage near Li, the Wilds had searched and sealed all of those, but a normal slave couldn’t survive all the way to Lo.
And where the normal slaves could only talk about such a way out vaguely, Scar still remembered the rumour that started it. A dwarf whose family once lived in Lo had told him some pretty credible descriptions of what the passage looked like. And now that the dwarf and all other slaves who knew the tale were either sold or died, only Scar remembered these descriptions.
Scar began walking downhill. He had a long trek ahead of him.