The heart of the eternal

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Allies and dangers

Wenja did wake up with a feeling of being made from lead, she stretched and yawned and noticed that she was alone in the bed, Sefa was already up and judging by the light which seeped in through the windows she had slept for many hours. It was already bright daylight outside and she swore a bit and got up, she felt silly still. How was she to face Rhawan now? She got dressed and washed herself and then she exited the wagon only to see that everybody were busy breaking camp. The wagon she was in was the only one not hitched up to the horses yet and she blushed when she realized that she had delayed them by oversleeping. Guards and drivers were scurrying around and Wenja hurried over to the camp fire where Imh was holding out a bowl of porridge for her. She took it with gratitude, her stomach was growling and she felt hollow from hunger. The activities of the night before had certainly worn her out and made her so very hungry. Imh smiled and found some fresh goat milk too and Wenja did swallow it down, feeling parched as well. Theka came over, she was frowning and her face was a bit red, she grasped a kettle of warm water and Imh did look at her with questions written all over her face. “What is the matter dear?”

Theka growled. “That silly girl, such an idiot!”

Wenja blinked. “Prina?”

Theka nodded. “Oh yes, an idiot. She cannot continue like this, she simply can’t”

Wenja finished her porridge, it was delicious as always. “What has she done now?”

Theka sighed and made a gesture of slight despair. “She refuses to eat, thinks she is getting fat! She is pregnant, by the gods, she needs to eat! But no, she refuses to see the truth”

Imh did look down. “She has suffered too much Theka, her mind did shatter. She is not capable of accepting the truth so do not try to force it onto her. That may cause her to go insane completely”

Theka smacked her lips together, she still looked angry. “I know that but there is a baby, she has to consider the safety of her child don’t you think?”

Wenja did clear her throat. “She isn’t capable of understanding that there is a child growing in her womb, accepting that means accepting what was done to her and she prefers to ignore it”

Imh scoffed. “Like a horse wearing blinkers, heading into disaster! Oh sweet gods, someone has to do something soon. She will most certainly snap whence the baby has to be born”

Wenja frowned. “Can the healers do something to help her?”

Theka shrugged. “They can heal the body, but hardly the mind. The shamans on the other hand, now they know a few tricks.”

Wenja felt a surge of hope. “That is wonderful, what sorts of tricks?”

Theka did look uncertain all of a sudden. “I don’t know, but I think it involves drugs, and meditation and some techniques they keep to themselves. But they do sometimes work miracles, I have seen it. At least they should be able to help her come to terms with it all, she will harm herself and the child if she doesn’t start to use her head”

Wenja bit her lower lip. “Is it really that bad?”

Theka nodded. “Yes, there are things you should stay away from when you are expecting and she doesn’t, and there are also things you should do which she refuses to even think about. I pray we reach the city soon, she is getting closer to her due day by each sunset, soon she cannot lie to herself anymore”

Wenja remembered Prina as she had been back in the village, a mere shadow of a person and she couldn’t really imagine anyone being worse than that but maybe that was possible. There had been a glimpse of madness in Prina’s eyes at times, when she faced challenges. Wenja got back to the wagon just as Sefa came sauntering, she was grinning and had her hair gathered in a high bun on top of her head and her arms were bare. She sat down next to Wenja as the wagon started to move. “I had to help the men clean some fish, one was out fishing in the river early this morning and caught quite a lot. I hope I don’t stink too bad”

Wenja shook her head. “You smell good, I cannot feel any stench at all”

Sefa just giggled and stretcher herself like a huge cat, she did look very relaxed and Wenja folded her legs up underneath her and tilted her head. “So, is there more I need to know about life on the plains?”

Sefa made a grimace. “Like what? “

Wenja shrugged. “The food?”

The dark haired woman grinned. “Ah yes, the food. You have lived in poverty haven’t you?”

Wenja nodded and Sefa suddenly looked very important. “You will never have to starve again but I am warning you. Some of the dishes out there can be a bit unusual, or even shocking to some.”

Wenja had to raise an eyebrow in astonishment. “Shocking? What can be so shocking about food? I heard what Rhawan said about fish but…”

Sefa gestured outwards. “Yes, that clan does have some odd ways to preserve and serve fish but they aren’t the only ones. The plains aren’t a rich area Wenja, nobody is farming out there, the soil is too poor and the weather is too unstabile. Hunting and gathering is what everybody does to stay alive so the food changes with the areas we enter”

Wenja did lean back against the wall, the wagon was moving a bit around and she had gathered some pillows around herself to avoid getting bruised by the sudden jolts. “Do tell please”

Sefa got into a more comfortable position as well, she straightened her skirts and grinned. “One of the things you will have to get used to is the meat from wild goats and gaselles, that is the most common meat we use. There are also other types of meat but they aren’t used that often, like rabbits and wild fowl, and sometimes horse”

Wenja frowned. “Horse?!”

She didn’t like the idea of those huge beautiful steeds being transformed to a meal, the very idea made her cringe. Back home nobody ate horse, it was a sacrilege for a horse was so valuable nobody would kill it until it was so old it was inedible.

Sefa nodded. “Aye, I see your expression and don’t worry, we do not slaughter our steeds. But there is a species of wild horse living in the wild hills and they are small and stocky and way too wild to be tamed and sometimes we do hunt a few. It is needed, their numbers cannot get too large for then they start to deteriorate in so many ways.”

Wenja was confused. “Deteriorate?”

Sefa nodded. “Yes, by inbreeding, the stallions won’t let any new males near his mares and thus the herds can become very weak and even deformed. We cull off the worst ones”

Wenja could understand that, inbreeding was a bad thing, every farmer knew that and she remembered how careful her father had been when mating the sheep each winter, he kept lists of which ewe was related to which ram and he never allowed those closely related to breed.

“I guess that is bad, but how bad does it get really?”

Sefa made a grimace. “The worst herd we have come across had been lead by the same stud for twenty summers, all of the mares were his own daughers and only a few had been stolen from other herds. We had to shoot five mares and all the new foals that spring, some of the foals were born blind and one lacked both ears and tail”

Wenja gasped and Sefa shrugged again. “But enough of that, horse is eaten very rarely so don’t worry about that. We have other dishes which are way more interesting”

Wenja made a grimace. “Such as?”

Sefa smiled. “I will give you an example, it is very delicious and I am quite sure it will be served at your wedding”

Wenja cringed a bit, she had almost forgotten the reason she was there. Sefa giggled “It is always served at weddings because it is said to increase the vigor of the newlyweds. “

Wenja rolled her eyes. “So, what is it?”

Sefa leaned a bit forth. “There is a sort of wild melon which grows in some river valleys, it is rather large and quite rare to come by so it is carefully picked when we do come across ripe ones. It is maybe the length of a grown man and the shape is interesting”

Wenja sighed and rolled her eyes. “Don’t tell me it is shaped like…”

Sefa nodded vigorously and with a huge grin on her face. “ Like a huge cock, yes! It was almost sacred to the old tribes”

Wenja had to snicker. “So, the huge melon which looks like a phallus is eaten?”

Sefa shook her head. “Oh no, not just like that. You cannot eat it as it is, that tastes just ghastly and it will give a very bad case of stomach trouble. No, it has to be fermented first, and then fried in oil”

Wenja blinked. “Really? Melon fried in oil?!”

Sefa nodded. “Yes, an oil made from a sort of nuts which is quite common here on the plains. The meat is green and a bit stringy but after that it becomes very tender and sweet and then it is rolled in spices and dried for a week”

Wenja was intrigued, back at home nobody spent that much time preparing a meal, food was to be eaten there and then, easy as that. “Dried?”

Sefa nodded. “Yes, then the whole thing is drenched in a mixture of honey, water and juice and baked into a sort of thin pastry, rolled in sirup made from maple juice and baked in an oven very slowly for half a day. The result is to die for”

Wenja had to think about the best meals Sina had made, roasted lamb with hardly any other spices than what their poor mountain farm could provide and the results had been tasty but lean and there had never been more than a mere taste for everybody. She just hoped that they would be better off now and that they didn’t have to go to bed hungry again. “You have tried it?”

Sefa nodded with starry eyes. “Oh yes, many times, and believe me, it is so good it is sinful.”

Wenja saw that the wagon had changed course, now they were following a narrow river and the terrain was relatively flat. She heard the guards chatting and the horses were moving relatively fast. It was as if they sensed that the journey was getting shorter by the day. “Do you fry things a lot?”

Sefa grinned. “Yes, the dwarves did teach us that art, they have these clay ovens which can be taken apart for transport and they are ingenius. Some stuff is baked in them while much is fried in oil too. There is a container on top of each oven to pour the oil into, thus you can both bake and fry stuff at the same time”

Wenja found the subject intriguing. “What about vegetables? Do you use that?”

She had never been used to vegetables, they were a rare luxury but one she did love. “We have lots of wild vegetables yes, roots and herbs and berries, and of course nuts and stuff. And some sorts of bulbs too”

Wenja frowned. “Bulbs?”

Sefa drew a huge round shape in the air with her hands. “Yes, and one is popular in particular, it is a type which grows only a few places though”

Wenja had never seen bulbs before, only roots and she was curious. “It is edible?”

Sefa nodded. “Yes, and very large, like one of the wagons. It grows for many years under ground and then it sends forth a stem with a single flower and the flower does smell like a rotting carcass by the way. That is how we discover them. Then we have to hurry and dig it up for the moment the flower starts to wither the bulb dies too and it rots very fast. But whence it is dug up we cut it into pieces and it is so good. It tasted like strawberries and honey and we can dry it too and ground it up into a sort of flour. The juice is also used, it is fermented into a sort of wine which does have quite a kick.”

Wenja made a grimace. “You seem to be fond of fermented stuff”

Sefa laughed. “Oh yes, you will have to get used to it too. The juice of that bulb is also seen as sacred in some ways, it is rather similar to certain male bodily fluids in appearance”

Wenja had to think for a second before she understood, then she blushed and Sefa giggled. “In the very start of the twelve clans brides would be rubbed down with that juice before their wedding night, to become fertile. It is a sticky mess so be glad you don’t have to endure that”

Wenja had to laugh. “I guess I have a lot to be grateful for”

Sefa nodded. “So, tell me about the couisine of your home, I bet it was mostly mutton, mutton and more mutton?”

Wenja felt a sudden urge to giggle violently. “Oh yes. And mostly old and dry rams!”

Sefa got into another position on the bed. “Go on, tell me more”

The three men Mjorr had hired were former soldiers, now they made a living as mercenaries and they were in short scum and cutthroats who gladly would have murdered their own mother for a few coins. Mjorr had met them in a barn during a snowstorm and he had bought their loyalty with some nice wine and some pieces of gold too. All three were older than Mjorr, none of them were below thirty and they had lived long and somewhat hard lives, they knew the character of a man by watching him and this guy was as bad as they were, or worse. But he was also a bit mad and they had learned never to trust crazy people at all. He had described his sister well and also given them pretty strict orders. They were to kill the wench the moment they found her, not hesitate or waste time by raping her or anything. They could fuck her corpse if they felt the need, but she was to die and that was not negotionable. The three men were not stupid, if they had been none of them would have survived for as long as they had. No, they realized that Mjorr was hiding something from his father and if Mjorr was rich Dagar was so much richer, and with way greater influence. It could perhaps pay off to keep their heads cool and wait. If this secret of Mjorr was juicy enough there could be a chance there, a chance to milk this cow for more than just a few coins of gold. They had ridden fast along the trading routes and they had realized that the caravan had taken a different route, they should have caught up with them by now and one of the men did remember the old dwarven tunnels.

This meant that they had to travel even faster if they were to catch up with the caravan but they didn’t mind. They had bought some very good horses and had spare animals too and they rested for a couple of hours each night but not more than that. Their life in the army had hardened them and they didn’t need much rest at all. All three were wearing light armour and solid but somewhat worn clothes, there was little doubt about their profession but they did take some pride in not looking like complete savages. They knew that people lied when they were scared. Bying the truth with sweet talk and wine was a way better method, and nobody would be chasing them afterwards trying to avenge some unfortunate victim. They had reached the steep path leading down to the plains now and they were grateful that there wasn’t that much snow there for one couldn’t ride down if it was icy. That would be suicide and the three spent the last night before the descent in a small inn which lay precariously close to the edge. All three knew how to act so that nobody got suspicious or hostile, they were smiling as much as they could, they even bought some pints for some of the elderly men who had gathered in a corner and before everybody were chatting away. The men remembered that the caravan had entered the inland at this place, the city of the twelve clans had not been that far away then and the old men spoke of the horses the eternal did ride with starry eyes and shivering hands. The three had encountered elves before and knew one thing for sure, if they were to do this and escape alive they couldn’t let themselves be caught, nor allow anybody to suspect that their intentions weren’t anything but peaceful. But they had been given quite a lot of gold by Mjorr and they managed to convince these men that they were out to buy a stallion of the lithe long legged breed some of the clans did breed. Their master wanted to breed faster horses and needed a good one.

The elderly men told them that the eternal never sold their horses but the humans which were a part of the twelve clans could perhaps be persuaded to sell them an untried colt, even one which was below their desired standard would be exquisite in the eyes of the mountain people. They pretended to be pleased by this and the old men did speak of the long friendship they had enjoyed with the twelve clans and their warriors. The village had been plagued by some rather pesky earth bears some years earlier and the eternal had managed to chase them away without loosing even one of their own. The mercenaries knew that elves are superior warriors and they had no intention of testing those skills themselves. But they did manage to find out where the city could be at the moment, and they had to accept that getting there could be tough. At least before the caravan did, when the elves did reach the plains they would move very fast, and catching up with them would be almost impossible.

The three were a bit disheartened when they happened to notice that one of the men there mentioned travelling by boat along the large river which came from the north. He was a tradesman and was heading towards the city to sell some cloth and other things the inhabitants of the plains couldn’t make themselves and the three saw their chance. The boats used were rather fast since the river was wide and rather slow and with sails they could travel way faster than on horseback. The youngest of the three managed to convince the salesman of the wisdom of accepting some extra passengers, just in case and they felt a surge of hope. If they could reach the city and find out what it was Mjorr was hiding they had the upper hand. For all they knew the wench knew something important and killing her right away was out of the question then, they had to make her speak first. As they found a place to sleep that night all three were convinced that this would become profitable indeed.

Bagir and Igkhan had left the tribe early, and Bagir was glad to see that the young hunter in fact did own a horse of his own. It was a very stocky animal with a long dense coat and it seemed to have a rather stubborn temper but he guessed it was normal for that breed. The horses bred for the mountains had to be tough in every manner to survive. Igkhan carried a rather broad shortsword and also a short spear plus a bow made for riders. He appeared to be very glad they were on their way and Bagir was very glad he now had a guide who knew the mountains. The high passes were dangerous and Bagir had never come this way before, he had heard the tales other told of the right paths but hearing about them wasn’t the same as wandering them oneself. Bagir rode behind Igkhan with his spare horse behind him and they made good speed at first. There wasn’t that much snow in this valley, the wind swept it away but Igkhan did warn him that this would change when they reached the lower areas.

Bagir was nervous, he had no idea of how far Mjorr and Dagar had come and he was afraid of getting there too late. He felt like hurrying but knew that such an impulse could be lethal in this terrain, he had to let Igkhan who knew the paths be in command now.

It soon became rather apparent that Bagir probably never would have been able to cross if he had been alone, he was used to the mountains for sure, just not these mountains. Igkhan did explain the route to the herder, making simple maps in the snow. The path they had to follow to get to the plains early enough to be able to intercept the nomadic tribes was a rather hidden one and it was dangerous since it was both steep and went through some pretty hazardous terrain. More so, it did cross the areas most inhabited by orcs and Igkhan had already warned Bagir that if they did encounter orcs he was to do all the talking. He knew how to deal with these creatures to avoid any trouble.

They had travelled for a few days when they suddenly realized that trouble maybe was heading their way no matter what they were doing. They had ridden down a very narrow ridge and Bagir was wet with perspiration, both from the stress of clinging to the saddle and sheer fear, if the horse lost its footing they would both fall to their death. Igkhan had changed the shows of Bagir’s horses into some the mountain tribes uses at this time of the year, shoes with a sort of spikes in them and the horse didn’t slip even once but Bagir felt how his stomach was lurching with each move the animal did. When they finally reached ground which was a bit more horizontal he was breathing a huge sigh of relief and hoped that they could catch a small break for his legs felt like jelly. Igkhan did stop his horse and his face was suddenly sharp, his eyes narrow. “Up ahead, ravens and crows. Something is dead”

Bagir didn’t have the youth’s sharp eyes. “Could it be a dead sheep? Some wild animal?”

Igkhan did kick the horse into a rocking trot. “No, it is a huge flock”

He didn’t say any more and Bagir did ride after him. They entered a small canyon and Bagir swallowed hard. There were orcs there, about five of them and they were intimidating and huge. The dark skin and visible tusks made them look very alien and all of them wore thick fur clothes and carried weapons, axes and spears. Igkhan held his hands up so they were visible and Bagir did the same. There was several dead bodies in the snow, a very grotesque sight and Bagir did see that they were orcs. Blood and entrails had frozen in place and made the place of slaughter look like a sort of painting but it was real.

One of the orcs did step forth, he was taller than the others and he was old, the thick black hair had streaks of grey and the tusks were obviously worn. He had one blind eye and was scarred and hunched over, he had seen a hard life for sure. Bagir did bow his head since he saw that Igkhan did the same and the young hunter did keep his hands visible. “I am Igkhan son of Arrath, what has happened here?”

The old orc stared at the two men and his one seeing eye was narrow and dark. The creature did smell, a very rancid smell which reminded Bagir of old billy goats and the thing had to have lice and fleas. “I have heard of you brother of the cat, they say you are brave”

Igkhan didn’t smile, he just cocked his head. “Brave I may be, but the brother’s of the bear are strong and fierce”

The orc sneered. “A human with a tongue of honey, we are mourning our dead”

The hunter nodded slowly. “The halls of the forefathers are surely welcoming them”

The orc spat in the snow and cocked his head. “Maybe, but they didn’t die in a battle, they were killed like mute beasts, like sheep”

Igkhan did frown. “Nobody is stronger than the orcs, you are like the foundations of this world”

The old male scoffed. “Like I said, a honeyed tongue. Yes, we are strong, stronger than all and yet four of our warriors and three of our females were slain”

Igkhan didn’t reveal how shocked he was, the loss of a female to the orcs was way worse than the loss of a male, females were rare and they were treasured. “I cry with you old one, such horrible loss”

The old orc sighed and his shoulders slumped forwards. “Monsters did this, terrible beasts who came out from the darkness. Our shaman saw it”

Igkhan did wet his lips. “Your seers are wise old one, what did they see?”

The orc turned towards the dead, his face told of grief. “Of a horrible danger to us all, of evil unleashed. They are coming”

Bagir swallowed hard. “Old and honoured one, what is coming?”

The orc stared at him, the face was without expressions. “Death, demons. A forgotten scourge upon the earth. “

Igkhan was staring at the bodies, the other orcs there was trying to get them out of the snow and the corpses were frozen stiff. “What could have killed four of your fine warriors so easily?”

The old male sighed and stared down. “The shamans says the gates have been forced open, only the one born twice may stop this.”

Bagir frowned. “The one born twice? That is impossible?”

The old orc shrugged. “The shamans said what they said, their words are the truth”

Bagir threw a glance at Igkhan, they had to start moving again. The hunter cleared his voice. “We are heading for the plains o honoured one, are there dangers in our path?”

The old orc turned around, his one seeing eye was revealing something which reminded them of relief. “The plains? Our shamans told us to send one of our own to the plains, the reason would be revealed by the sacred tree they said”

Bagir swallowed. “You will send someone?”

The orc nodded. “Aye, one of our young warriors, the shamans have chosen her”

Igkhan raised an eyebrow. A female warrior? That was most unusual among the orcs, females were so few that most had to take the role as child bearers whether they liked to or not. The old orc grinned, a rather stiff smile. “She may travel with you, you weak humans will need her protection. Resh’kha is strong, a daughter of our chieftain.”

Igkhan made a little grimace. “If she doesn’t find our company too boring and insignificant we would be honoured.”

The old orc just grumbled. “Three travels better than two!”

Bagir saw that Igkhan was nervous and he believed that he understood why. If something indeed had killed that many orcs they were not safe there, and one more warrior could really mean the difference between life and death. The old orc did whistle and a figure appeared from behind some tall rocks, wearing a thick leather cloak and some furs. Bagir had never seen a female orc up close and certainly not a young one. She was….well, he wouldn’t call her beautiful but there was a firm strength in her face and the long black hair had been braided back into a firm braid. She had some tattoos on her face and her tusks had been filed down a bit. She did look fierce but also like a person who has some ability to think instead of just rushing into action like a headless chicken. She did look at them with dark piercing eyes and Igkhan did swallow hard. “We are most blessed to have you among us daughter of the bear”

Resh’kha sighed and shook her head. “Two Adahkhi? Well, they would be better off in their huts, I will not wait for them”

Bagir knew that the word Adahkh meant human male and it could be translatable as weak one. He would have been offended if someone else called him weak but he guessed that the orcs viewed everyone not themselves as flawed. The female did grasp the forearm of the old orc and whispered something, then she threw a quick glance at the two men and made a gesture. “Come Adakhi, we cannot wait. We need to get out of here before sunset”

Ighkan saw she was armed and she was moving through the snow with a sort of flowing grace, she was more than two meters tall and her shoulders were wide, the difference between female and male was very little among orcs. He waited until they had come some distance from the other orcs. “She is an outcast, they wouldn’t have sent her otherwise!”

Bagir frowned and made sure that he didn’t look at the tall female orc. “What makes you say that? The shamans chose her?”

Igkhan made a grimace. “Yes, because she is expendable, I bet she has done something wrong, or perhaps there is something wrong with her, physically. Orcs are very gender oriented”

Bagir blinked. “But there is hardly any difference to be spotted when they have clothes on?!”

Igkhan sort of scoffed. “Yeah, but whence the clothes come off the difference is there, believe me. I recon we will find out why she is the one they send, sooner or later”

The female orc was trotting down the path with a speed the horses had problems keeping up with and she appeared to be angry, there was something about her body language which spoke of tension and she was speaking to herself, or rather whispering. Bagir stared at Igkhan who just nodded and whispered. “Don’t talk to her unless she speaks to you, it is considered rude to speak to a female.”

Bagir made a swift grimace and tried to keep his eyes on the surrounding mountains instead, Igkhan was clearing his voice again. “I wonder what wounds the dead had? The method of killing can tell a lot of the perpetrator.”

Resh’kha turned her head a wee bit. “They were torn apart, ripped limb from limb.”

Her voice was gruff and Bagir had a feeling that she wasn’t too happy about having to leave her tribe. Igkhan shuddered, something able to rip orcs apart? He would prefer not to meet that creature, or creatures. “Did anyone see the thing which did it?”

The female orc didn’t turn her head this time. “Only tracks in the snow, odd tracks.”

Bagir knew the mountains since he had spent his entire life herding sheep and he had seen all the animals which lived up there. He had even encountered one of the very rare earth bears once and he had seen the foot prints of the wild giants some said lived in the caves way above the treeline. But if an orc said odd tracks then it had to be odd tracks indeed.

They kept riding in silence for quite a while, they entered a shallow vale with a frozen lake in the middle and now it was getting dark soon so the female did lead them towards some cliffs. Bagir didn’t protest, this was orc territory, she probably knew every rock there. There was a sort of firepit carved into the rocks and some firewood and if you attached some furs to hooks in the rock you could create a sort of shelter. They did and Resh’kha did sneer at them before she sat down with a small bag which probably contained food. It wasn’t much, some black bread and what had to be dried meat. Igkhan did stare at her with some pity in his eyes, but he didn’t say anything. She ate in silence, the meat had to be very tough for she struggled to chew and the hunter whispered to Bagir. “It is meat from wild dogs, it is unclean. Orcs never touch it normally, she is an outcast for sure”

Bagir just nodded and leaned back, tried to get a conversation going, about something else than their current situation. “So, your sister,what was she like?”

Igkhan sighed. “The sweetest child imaginable, so trusting and kind. She always thought about others before she thought of herself and she was the jewel of our mother’s eye”

Bagir nodded slowly. “Do you have more siblings?”

He smiled and threw a piece of sausage over to Bagir. “Two sisters and a younger brother, the girls are already married but my brother is going to be a shaman, he doesn’t want to marry but to listen to the gods instead”

Bagir saw that Resh’kha was listening. “I see.”

Ighkan was chewing on his food, very slowly. “I am the only hunter in our family so it is my duty to avenge my sister”

Resh’kha did turn her head and stared at them. “Your sister is dead?”

Igkhan did nod. “Yes, a man raped and killed her, we are on our way to warn the eternal that he is heading their way, dead set on having his way with a woman sent off to marry one of them”

The orc tensed up, her eyes got narrow and her skin seemed to darken. “I see, he deserve death then.”

Bagir tilted his head. “Yes, he does. The girl he raped was just a child, and he has done the same thing many times before”

The orc growled. “None of us does such things, it angers the Goddess, makes bad luck. I will help you, vengeance is good”

Igkhan did frown. “That is very kind of you, but you do have your own mission?”

She nodded. “Help each other, good right?”

Igkhan nodded. “Yes, yes that is very good indeed. You are most welcome”

Bagir felt a bit conflicted, having an orc on their side was of course wonderful when one considered the fact that she was a superior warrior and way stronger than the both of them combined. The orcs were feared by most creatures, but if this new enemy was something out of this world? Bagir felt a chill running down his spine, things had changed and not for the better, his simple mission had just changed into something different and unexpected. The orc just sat there and Bagir had the time now to really look at her. The face wasn’t exactly feminine, there was indeed little difference between male and female when it came to facial features but he did see that her hair was a wee bit softer looking that the hair of the males and her hands were more narrow, more elegant. Also, her skin appeared to be a bit lighter and her shoulders weren’t quite as wide as those of the warriors he had seen. She finished her meal in silence and then she just laid down on the cold ground, wrapped her fur cloak around herself and went to sleep. Bagir shrugged. “I will take first watch, we all need some rest now I think”

Bagir agreed and laid down, his blankets were thick and warm and he wondered how tough the orcs really were, surviving in the wild mountains wasn’t easy.

The next morning there was strong wind and snow flew between the cliffs, they ate some more and Resh’kha was impatient and also in a way resignated. Had she perhaps hoped that she would be called back, that she didn’t have to go after all?

As they rode on Bagir kept staring at the broad back and she seemed even more sad as they entered one of the valleys which lead towards the plains. There was probably no turning back for her now, whatever the reason was for her mission. As they tried to get down the slopes they saw old ruins, hidden underneath the snow. Bagir nodded towards them. “Dwarven ruins, they are very old. And they are sacred to the dwarves. An old city I believe”

Bagir saw that the buildings had to have been massive, and probably very impressive too, there were stones so huge he couldn’t understand how they had been moved into place. Resh’kha hadn’t said anything to them at all earlier that day, now she spat in the snow and grunted. “Dwarven stronghold. The city of silver delight. Fell a long time ago”

Bagir tried to be polite. “Forgive me for asking, but do you know the story of this place?”

The female orc grunted again. “We all do, old tale. It is in our blood. A warning of times which were”

She walked around the fallen rocks with some sort of reverence. “Dwarves and orcs worked together back then, we were brothers. Things were…different”

She didn’t say anything more and Igkhan made a grimace. “Well, I bet it was the dwarven greed which lead to its demise”

Resh’kha shook her head but didn’t look at them. “Nay, it was magic. Old magic, bad magic. It made them go mad”

She walked on and Bagir just shrugged, the orc wasn’t exactly informative.

That evening they reached a river which proved to be very difficult to cross, there weren’t any safe crossings for mile and so they spent many hours in vain until Resh’kha finally found a spot where the horses could get over without any danger of falling. The next couple of days were uneventful, they were getting low on food now and Bagir was getting a bit nervous, they had to eat to keep up their strength and the little gras the horses managed to find under the snow wasn’t very nutritious. The oats he had brought would be gone in a few days.

They were camping in a sort of cave when the orc suddenly got up, it was clear that she heard something they didn’t and she got pale. “Make the horses lay down, make sure they are silent”

The two men did what they were told to do, made the animals lay down and placed blankets over their heads, the animals were well trained, they would understand that this meant that they had to stay down and be silent. Resh’kha was breathing in a funny manner, her eyes huge. “It is them, it is demons!”

Bagir did peek forth from behind her, they hadn’t lit any fires and the cave was well hidden so he didn’t fear being seen if this was some sort of natural enemy. If it weren’t well then they were screwed anyhow. What he did see almost made him pee his pants, he saw three overly tall figures wandering slowly through the snow, as if their legs were too heavy to move. They were glowing, a sort of orange glow which was rather unpleasant, it seemed…unnatural. The creatures were almost transparent, you could see the skeleton inside of them and they were humanoid in shape but there were just too many bones, it seemed as if each one was made from several others, merged together. Yet they moved and there was a sort of chilling determination within the way they moved. The heads was the worst part though, the shape was completely obscured by the glow, but you could see their eyes for they weren’t glowing, they were like black blotches on a sheet, deep black and bottomless, just cold and dead and filled with a terrible evil. They had more than two eyes, he could count at least five on the one closest to them and Resh’kha was trembling all over.

Bagir was glad there was some distance between them, the creatures just kept moving without seeing them but he was aware of the fact that they all would have been dead if they had been discovered. He let out a sigh when they disappeared from view, he had been holding his breath and Igkhan was pale. “Oh by every God.”

Resh’kha was moaning. “The goddess was with us, praised be”

Bagir had to sit down. “Was this what your shamans saw?”

Resh’kha did nod, there was tears in her eyes and Bagir frowned. “Are you alright?”

He knew he shouldn’t talk directly to her but she did appear to be devastated. The female orc let out a thin wail, filled with sorrow and despair. “ It is my fault, I did this!”

Igkhan raised his eyebrows and it made him look rather peculiar indeed. “Ah, that you will have to explain to us?”

She sobbed. “I did something terrible, that is why I have been sent.”

Igkhan did send Bagir a warning glance, none of them ought to say anything just yet. Resh’kha hid her face behind her hands, she was trembling slightly. “I used magic, forbidden magic. I lured them to us, I am sure I did.”

Bagir frowned, orcs aren’t known for their magical proves, as a matter of fact they usually shun magic completely since they believe that the use of such forces makes one weak. To them it is much more honest to solve problems with steel in hand. Igkhan did tilt his head, he didn’t look at her at all. “That is just a guess, you cannot be sure!”

Resh’kha gasped, she did seem to be utterly distraught. “The shamans said it is my fault, the monsters, they can smell magic, they are drawn to it, and I…”

She shuddered. “I wanted this one male for myself, I was so jealous of his woman and when I heard she was expecting I went mad, I have no idea what came over me,”

Igkhan still looked down. “You are young, your wisdom is still growing”

Resh’kha snorted. “What wisdom? I did something illegal, unspeakable. I put a spell on that woman to make her lose her child”

Igkhan’s voice was dry. “Did she?”

Resh’kha shook her head. “No, but she died in the attack, as did he.”

Bagir suddenly realized that the orcs were smarter than he had believed earlier. They knew how the mind works and he felt a renewed respect for them. Resh’kha did feel guilty and guilt, whether real or not, can eat at you like a cancer. Resh’kha felt that she needed to be punished and so she was, but in a different manner than what she would have preferred. Igkhan sighed. “Resh’kha, I don’t know your customs and I don’t know you, but I do strongly doubt that the magic you used had anything to do with this, you are no mage are you?”

She shook her head and did still look devastated. “No, I am not”

The hunter did nod. “They are attracted to magic you said, it could be that those who died owned something with magical powers, like an amulet or something, That doesn’t make you responsible for their deaths at all”

She trembled visibly. “But what I did was wrong!! One should never interfere the way I wanted to do!”

Igkhan nodded slowly. “That is correct Resh’kha, but like I said, you are young. I am sure the shamans meant well, you will find the truth eventually”

She didn’t speak again, just huddled together and Bagir took a deep breath before he sat down at the back of the cave. He felt a bit shocked for he had never believed that orc females could be that passionate but why not. They were a strong people, strong feelings ought to be normal then. Igkhan was making a grimace. “They wanted to punish her, for having stepped out of line and yet they also wanted to help her, they have wisdom, it is just not seen that often”

Bagir nodded. “I have reached the same conclusion.”

Igkhan found his blankets. “We have to be careful from now on, if such horrors roam the land we have to warn everybody we meet”

Bagir supressed a shudder” Alright, how long til we reach the plains?”

Igkhan shrugged. “We have travelled fast but still we won’t be there for yet another week or a week and a half. These valleys are long, and the terrain becomes more treacherous as we reach the edge”

Bagir knew that the area where the mountains met the plains was called the edge by everybody, it was a very steep region which surrounded the entire mountain area. He wasn’t looking forwards to that part of the trip. Not even a wee bit, he had heard the stories of terrible falls and accidents.

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