Life is good.
The thought pleased Yorg. It was a big thought, a thought worth chanting around the fire after a hunt. It was not the sort of thought that sprang into Yorg’s head regularly. It was too abstract and poetic. That’s why it pleased him. It caught the moment.
Yes, life was good. And today, life was very good.
Yorg reached over and picked up the counting stick that he kept beside his straw mattress. He laboriously counted the number of notches in the stick. Thirty. The magic number. Today the Lord Baltrog would be coming to town to collect taxes and ask Yorg about any problems. That’s why life was so good right now. For most of the month the citizens of Oakborder tolerated Yorg’s authority with ill grace. That fat barkeep Harry Bandle would serve him his free drinks with a grimace and, Yorg was certain, a large splash of water. The women who worked in the pleasure house would submit to Yorg’s embraces with undisguised loathing. As he patrolled the city, the citizens would be slow to step out of his way and housewives would throw their dishwater at his feet.
But the end of the month was different. Yesterday Harry had poured Yorg’s drinks with a smile, even bringing out a bottle of very special grog. The women in the pleasure house had squealed with delight when Yorg visited and had fought over who would accompany him upstairs. The citizens not only stepped out of his way, they bowed and scraped. And he couldn’t pass a butcher or baker without being showered with free sausages or loafs of sweet bread. Yes, life was good, and today would be even better. For the Lord Baltrog would not arrive until almost sunset so the town’s citizens would be going out of their way to please Yorg, the Lord Baltrog’s man in Oakborder, all day.
Yorg stretched, scratched himself vigorously, and rolled off his mattress. His few clothes were hung on pegs on the walls of his room in the back of the town hall. He chose his best trousers, the leather ones with the frills, a relatively clean jerkin, his chain mail shirt, and his boots freshly polished by the town saddler. He put on his hat of authority, a red leather cap with a feather in it, and strapped on his sword. The sword had belonged to a human Yorg had killed many years ago. The human had used it as a two-handed weapon, but for Yorg, three-quarters orc and almost seven feet tall, the weapon was a perfect for one-handed fighting.
Not that he had much cause to fight. Not in the Lord Baltrog’s town.
Yorg opened the door and stepped out into the mountain air of Oakborder. He breathed deeply and tried to decide what he should do first. Walk by the baker and sample his wares for breakfast? See if the butcher was open yet and demand a small pig be slaughtered and roasted for his lunch later in the day? So many possibilities. But first, a tour of town so that everyone would know that Yorg, the Lord Baltrog’s man, was on the job and open for bribes.
He shut his door but did not bother to lock it. Who would rob the Lord Baltrog’s man? Only someone with a death wish.
As he stepped onto the main street, Yorg was pleased to see that the town’s people had been preparing for the Baltrog’s visit. Cobblestones had been scrubbed and some storefronts had a new coat of whitewash. Everything seemed in order, a fact that he would be careful to take credit for when he met Lord Baltrog this evening.
Yorg strutted down the main street, still deserted at this time of the morning, whistling loudly. He found himself heading towards the bakery. A nice stuffed bread, that would be just fine. Perhaps washed down with some brandy from the tavern. He would have to wake that fat barkeep up to get served, but Harry would not complain today. No he would not.
Life was very good indeed.
How wrong his parents had been! His half-orc mother had told him to avoid towns and cities and to make his way as a hunter in the great forests of southern range. His father, an orc, had been even more dismissive. War was all that counted for him. Killing men, killing women, just killing.
Yorg had nothing against killing, or hunting for that matter, but they were a lot of work. The exertion, practice, and danger that his parents’ predilections demanded were simply too much for Yorg. And so when a minion of Lord Baltrog approached him some years ago, Yorg had jumped at the chance for a cushy job in Oakborder. Free room and board, free women, and special treats at the end of the month. This was so much better than life in the orc and half-orc camps that Yorg could never imagine going back, not even to visit his parents. If they were still alive.
So wrapped was he in his thoughts that Yorg walked ten feet past Harry’s tavern before he realized something was amiss. The tavern stood on the corner of the main street and the little alley known as Keep’s Lane. It seemed to Yorg that when he had walked past the alley he’d seen a shape, something about twenty feet from the main street. Or had he? He had been too busy thinking about how he would spend the rest of the time before Lord Baltrog arrived to pay attention.
Yorg backtracked to the alley and looked again. Yes, there was something. A large bundle, or a sack maybe, lying just across from the back door of the tavern.
Who would put out rubbish on the day that the Lord Baltrog was arriving? Who would be so stupid as to incur Yorg’s wrath? Whoever it was, he would not only have to clean up the mess, he would have to pay Yorg not to report the infraction to Baltrog. And since Baltrog was coming this very day, Yorg could demand a very sizeable bribe indeed.
Yorg drew his sword and headed down the alley. As he drew closer he recognized the shape as a body.
Suddenly life was not so good. If someone had been murdered in Oakborder the Lord Baltrog would not be pleased. Yorg was not only supposed to collect taxes and keep notes on who grumbled about Baltrog’s reign, he was supposed to be the arm of justice in the town. That was the rational behind the Baltrog’s authority: in return for taxes and abject obedience, Baltrog promised an end to bandit raids from the monsters of the mountains and an end to crime. He had delivered the former; as his man in Oakborder, it was up to Yorg to enforce the latter.
Standing over the body, Yorg was surprised at how small it was. A child? No, a dwarf. Man or woman, it was lying on its face in the dirt.
Yorg hooked the toe of his boot under the side of the body and flipped it over. As it rolled it gave a groan. It’s not dead! Maybe this could work to his advantage. He could haul this dwarf before Baltrog and claim he was a criminal whom he’d caught in the act of breaking into a temple.
The dwarf, which was clearly male, certainly looked like a criminal. His clothes, which may have been fine once, were dirty and worn. His hair was tangled and his long, brown beard matted. He smelled like he had not washed in weeks and he reeked of alcohol. Yorg noticed a broken bottle lying beside the dwarf. He may have stolen it from the tavern and come out here to finish drinking, finally passing out in a stupor. Public drunkenness was a crime in Oakborder.
Yorg hunched down to examine the dwarf closer. His clothes had been good at one time, very good. And the chainmail that Yorg could see in the opening of the dwarf’s collar looked to be of extremely high quality, much better than the chainmail that Yorg was wearing. The dwarf’s left hand clutched at something that was attached to a leather thong worn around his neck. Something precious? Gold?
Yorg reached out to open the clenched hand but stopped when he noticed that the dwarf’s hand was disfigured. It was missing the pinky. Strange. The rest of the hand seemed fine. How could someone lose his smallest finger? What kind of accident or fight would do that?
Yorg reached forward again and opened the fingers of the dwarf’s hand. Inside the hand he found a small leather pouch.
Yorg put down his sword and gingerly opened the pouch. He reached in and pulled out its contents. It was a finger, old and dried, decorated with a gold ring.
Yorg fell on his backside in surprise. The dwarf hadn’t moved, but had opened his eyes and was staring at him. His eyes were a bright green.
Yorg scrambled to his feet and grabbed up his sword. He still held the finger in his left hand.
“Mine now,” he said. “I am Yorg, the Lord Baltrog’s man.”
“I don’t care if you’re Moradin’s handmaiden. The finger’s mine.” The dwarf wearily held up his mutilated left hand to prove it.
Yorg looked at the finger he was holding. It was the dwarf’s? Why would a dwarf carry around his own severed finger? It made no sense. Better to let Lord Baltrog get to the bottom of this.
“You come with me. The Lord Baltrog deal with you tonight.” Yorg puffed his chest out. “I am the Lord Baltrog’s man.”
“You said that,” said the dwarf. He closed his eyes and sighed. Then he rolled to his side and slowly got to his feet, groaning with the effort. “I’ve slept in more comfortable alleys,” he said.
He turned to face Yorg. “Now give me back the finger.”
“No! You come with me! I am . . .”
“The Lord Ball-bag’s man, yes I know. But the finger is mine. It has . . .” The dwarf paused, “sentimental value.”
“You are criminal! Lord Baltrog will show you his power.” Yorg couldn’t believe that this dwarf, this dirty dwarf, would question his authority. He may not have heard of Lord Baltrog, but he should know his superior when he met him. Yorg was twice as tall as the dwarf and, as far as he could see, better armed. To prove the point he started to raise his sword.
The dwarf did something very fast with his right hand.
Yorg didn’t understand the movement, but before he could decipher it a flood of warmth on his chest distracted him. He reached up to touch his neck. His finger came away wet with some dark liquid. Like blood. Yorg started to ask the dwarf about this but then saw that the dirty little man held a piece of the broken bottle in his hand. That was strange. And when Yorg started to shout, “I am the Lord Baltrog’s man,” he found that he could not breath. At all.
And then things got very strange indeed. Yorg found himself falling backwards, grabbing at his slashed throat, dropping his sword. As he hit the ground his pain-numbed mind could only form one thought: life is good.
But then he found himself falling into a cold, dark place that was not good.
Not good at all.