Gray Range on the border of the Fifthling Kingdom,
Spring, 6234th Solar Cycle
Gronsha stood still, listening intently in the swirling fog that his yellow eyes were quite unable to penetrate, though he was one of the finest scouts in Prince Ushnart’s army. To tell the truth, he was one of only three scouts still left to Prince Ushnart. The others who had set off to reconnoiter for the Prince now lay at the Stone Gate, their heads struck clean from their shoulders.
He could hear footsteps. Many footsteps.
Swiftly he grabbed hold of his jagged two-handed sword, ready to wield it. He and his troop had made the fatal error of being over-confident when they had left the Subterranean Kingdom by way of the Stone Gate and seen the enemy recoiling before their superior numbers. And now the Bearded Ones were clinging to their heels as tenaciously as gnome excrement sticks to your boots.
Not that he was frightened of the Groundlings. Black Water, blood of the Perished Lands, flowed now in his veins and rendered him immortal. Unless, of course, someone were to strike his head clean off his shoulders.
But the enemy, unfortunately, were very good at that: even their stunted physique was no handicap there.
If they couldn’t reach the neck with their axes, they would slice at the legs. An opponent sunk to his knees was easy to decapitate.
In the Groundlings’ northern kingdom, a place thought more or less deserted, they had come upon an unexpectedly large enemy band. He and his two fellow scouts, facing defeat, had chosen to turn tail, heading back to the Outer Lands. Maybe they could locate another escape route backto Prince Ushnart’s camp to warn him about the Groundlings; could they manage to find an exit that did not involve a battle with a horde of ax-wielding warriors?
In the Outer Lands, it was said, it was his own tribe that reigned—the orcs. So far he had not come across any, but he wouldn’t object to a little support.
“It’s steamy as wash-day. You can’t see a thing in this fog,” he overheard one of the Groundlings complain. It was essential for any self-respecting scout that he be able to understand the language spoken by the enemy.
“You’d think the wretched fog itself was wanting to help the swine.”
Gronsha objected to the term swine—it was an insult indeed to be called a pig by that barrel-sized runt of a creature. Pigs were all right to eat, but they were nothing much to look at. And he, after all, was well built, twice the size of one of those Beard-Faces. Instinctively he tensed his muscles in anger. This made his armor grate against the rock behind, signaling his whereabouts to the dwarves.
They’d heard it.
“Ah, we’ve got him.”
Oh no, you haven’t, Beard-Face. Gronsha sprinted away to shake off his pursuers, but again the dull metallic clank betrayed him.
He’d no idea how far he’d gone or in which direction he’d been running. And where on earth were his companions?
He only knew that it was dark all around him. Was he in a cave? He pressed up against the nearest wall, holding his breath to listen out for the enemy.
“Halt!” one of them ordered, quite close. He could hear the creak of boots as his pursuer stood still. “Can you hear him?”
Gronsha gave an evil grin. So the Groundlings were as helpless in this fog as he was himself.
Carefully he sniffed the air, noting his opponent’s position by the unmistakable smell. He moved off, sword raised in his two hands above his head, ready to strike: he could split the creature in two with a single blow.
“Boïndil?”—he heard the voice of the Groundling querying his approach. A stocky shadowy figure emerged from the fog, and Gronsha launched his attack, sure of his target.
“Aha, so somebody’s listening to me, at least,” said the dwarf, stepping neatly to one side and wielding his own weapon in his turn. The ax-blade slashed into Gronsha’s right buttock. He let out a yell and disappeared into the wall of fog.
This was no way to fight. This was not the type of encounter he enjoyed.
This accursed fog.
He decided to retreat rather than stumble around hoping for a chance hit before one of them managed to strike him again.
The wound on his backside was quickly closing up. The Black Immortality draught that he had been taken would heal him instantaneously, though the cut had been in a sensitive and undignified area. Typical of those devious Groundlings. They would always avoid honorable combat and sneak off and hide in their strongholds and caves.
Gronsha turned and headed back through the thick mist. Behind him he heard the screams of a dying orc, felled by a Groundling. The ghastly sound curdled his blood.
He caught sight of a small figure backing into view through the mist. Without pause for thought he raised his weapon and smashed the blade right down on the enemy’s helmet. Death struck so fast that not a single cry was uttered. Blood sprayed out on all sides.
Gronsha was not yet satisfied. “You scummy rockslime worm. I’ll cut you to ribbons!” He hacked away at the corpse in a blind rage, oblivious to the din. Laughing, he severed the bearded head and booted it off into the fog: this was his way to take revenge. His victim’s helmet and shield he took with him. They would serve him well.
As he lifted the shield the next dwarf rushed up ready to kill. “Here!” the dwarf shouted, ax upraised. “Here he is. This way!”
“Damnable maggot,” croaked Gronsha, taking the blow on his shield. The blade skidded over the edge of the metal, hitting him on the shoulder. The thick layer of lard on his body armor, designed to foil enemy weapons, had failed him this time.
Gronsha sprang back, but his adversaries were attacking from all sides. Running straight ahead he crashed against a rough granite wall that tore at his skin as he slid along it.
His discovery of the wall was no real help. He felt he was going round in circles. The enveloping mist allowed no escape and seemed to be mocking him as it imprisoned him in the swirling darkness. The combat zone for him and the Groundlings must be a cave with many interconnecting tunnels.
His shoulders throbbed and burned. The Black Immortality healed him fast but even so the pain was intense. He attempted a cautious movement of his arm, which obeyed him dutifully. Gronsha would have to rely on that arm because his enemies were still at large.
He could smell their presence despite the hateful damp cold gray vapor that was like a blindfold on his eyes. The further in you ventured, the less you could hear in this fog. Even his own armor had ceased to give off any sound. He was swathed in a cold damp blanket of the stuff.
Those other caves, the ones in the land of Toboribor, Realm of the Orcs to the southwest of Girdlegard, were always warm and dry: you could move about unhampered. This cavern was the exact opposite: cold, eerie and forbidding.
The gray veils swirled about wildly, making him think there were Groundlings on all sides about to attack as he felt his way along the wall searching for an exit. Three times he was fooled by his imagination and stabbed furiously at empty air.
At last Tion and Samusin, the gods of his people, took pity on him and showed him a way out—a black opening in the rock wall.
All at once a Groundling was in his path, jumping out at him from the fog and wielding a deadly ax. “Perish, fiend!”
This time Gronsha was ready for him, parrying the blow and kicking his attacker in the face so that the dwarf lurched back into the wall of mist, spitting blood and teeth. “You shall die first, rock-louse!”
Time to apply some trickery. Gronsha squatted down low, put the battered dwarf helmet on his head, took up the captured shield and altered his voice as he lurched from side to side, gurgling in desperation. “Help! He’s done for me.” He groaned and whimpered. “For the sake of Vraccas, friends, come to my aid!”
“Bendagar? Are you injured?”
“My leg,” moaned Gronsha, battling with the urge to laugh. This was no time for laughter—not yet.
“Hold on, we’re coming,” he heard the Groundling’s comrade call. The dwarf’s outline appeared in the fog.
“Mind you keep quiet. There’s another of those snoutfaces round here somewhere. He—”
Gronsha did not wait. He thrust the sword tip violently through the chain mail and into the belly of his enemy.
“Well, well, Beard-Face, you don’t say?” His laugh was full of malice as he twisted the blade. The dwarf groaned and tried to strike at him but Gronsha fended off the blow, grabbing the ax handle and forcing it out of the weakening grasp of the other. “Bite on your own blade,” he growled, slicing into the bearded face.
The Groundling sank back into the wall of fog. This time forever.
Gronsha leaped over the body and raced into the swirling mist of the tunnels through which he hoped to make his escape.
It was a leap into the unknown and nothing like the sort of exploring he was used to.
He was aware of a feeling of great unease. I am in the Outer Lands, he thought, quaking with fear but unable to name the source of his terror.
In Toboribor there were legends about the mighty territories of the orcs. One place alone was as big as the whole of Girdlegard and could sustain a vast population of orcs—more orcs than there were stars in the heavens.
He thought the myths were exaggerated. But still, there must be orcs in the Outer Lands. Many thousands of solar cycles ago the first and only ever successful raid had started from the north.
Of course it was thanks to his people that the Northern Gateway had been breached. Every orc descendant knew the legend of the glorious orbit that celebrated the victory over the Groundlings. Only orcs had the necessary stamina, strength and courage. Cycle after cycle, the memorable event was honored in Toboribor.
How wonderful, thought Gronsha, to have celebrated the next festival in a conquered dwarf kingdom. And with the severed head of a Groundling to serve as a missile for the shot-put event, the way they used to at the festival commemorating the fall of Girdlegard. The feasts they provided had been enormous; this time he’d certainly have carried off the prize for competitive belching. Instead of enjoying the games, though, there he was, on his own, stuck in the Outer Lands. He had been born in the caves of Toboribor and knew nothing of the land of his forebears. The same as all the orcs in Toboribor.
But it wasn’t just orcs he was hoping to come across; there would be ogres, trolls, älfar and all the other creatures that worshipped the gods Samusin and Tion.
“Those were the days,” he grumbled. Since the defeat of their ally Magus Nôd’onn there was no chance of any more good times for him and Prince Ushnotz, who was wanting to establish a new empire; they were constantly running away from the Red-Bloods, they had no home anymore and the prince was weak and treated them unfairly.
He still didn’t dare to stand up to Ushnotz, to kill him and take over. Others, those with more experience, he was sure, would be getting there first with their plans for a coup. Whoever managed to vanquish the prince would replace him—that was always the way with his people.
The best man would take power. So Groshna went on waiting. He was waiting for his chance. The only good thing about his position was his immortality, granted him by the Black Water. But immortality without power was like a bone with no meat.
Gronsha’s plan was changing, the further he advanced and the more the mist lifted. “Why should I go back and serve Ushnotz at all?” he asked into the empty air, and his words echoed back from the cavern walls. Reflections from the glistening moss gave enough light for his sensitive vision. He could see nearly as well as in bright daylight.
His confidence grew. “I’m as good a prince as any.”
Perhaps he would be able to drum up a small band of mercenaries in the Outer Lands and get them to attack the Stone Gate. He and his troopers had managed to inflict substantial damage on the gates before having to retreat; the Groundlings would not be able to secure the gates easily. A few hundred orcs and they’d soon dispense with that puny handful of defenders. He’d have to act quickly and find allies enough to launch an attack before the Groundlings got their repairs underway.
Gronscha grinned. He, the immortal orc, would be the one to take the Groundlings’ stronghold. All he needed were comrades in arms. No point in being choosy. Anything that could hold a weapon would be fine with him. Now he was convinced: it had been Tion’s will that he should go into the Outer Lands.
His eyes picked out a sign on the cave wall. It was a rune, elaborate and strange and revoltingly dwarfish. The shape couldn’t be from the Sharp-Ears.
“Are those confounded bearded boils on this side, too?” cursed Gronsha. He couldn’t work out whether the marks on the stone were recent or had been etched a thousand cycles previously. He would have to be careful.
He carried on, following the tunnel that soon branched into two, and strode along after a moment’s hesitation, taking the passageway that had the slightly warmer air.
Soon the passage fanned out into a dozen corridors. Gronsha was entering a maze.
He marked his chosen path, scratching a large orc rune: two vertical lines with two dots between them. He might need to find his way back. Before long he was faced with the same decision about which direction to take. This happened eight times.
It was deathly quiet.
His footsteps made no sound now; the layer of grease on his armor had melted into the gaps and was lubricating the metal so there was no noise from the plates grating together. You couldn’t even hear a pebble dislodging from the roof, or a drop of water splashing down. In the Outer Lands there was neither sound nor life. Nothing but him and the passageways, sometimes high and wide as barn doors, sometimes as small as a human female.
Fear started to take hold of him.
He began to sweat. He was seeing hundreds of shadows surrounding him, then he thought his own shadow was moving when he was standing still. In no time he was so far gone he’d have welcomed even the sound of an orc’s death scream. At least he’d have been able to hear something.
Finally he broke into a run, not knowing what he was running from or running towards. He was so desperate to get away from the silence, he forgot to mark his way. No matter how tired he was, no matter how much time had passed: nothing else was important.
Then the passage opened up into a cavern.
Gronsha stopped on the threshold, gasping, in his left side a piercing pain each time he drew breath. He reckoned the cave was about forty paces long and over a hundred in height. Great shafts of sunlight, wide as tree trunks, fell through. It looked as if they were columns supporting the roof. The bright light cut through the gloom, tearing pale holes in the darkness of the floor.
He stopped short. Bones . . . heaps of bones. Orc bones!
Either he had found a burial chamber where cowards’ remains were unceremoniously thrown to rot away, or else these caves were home to some creature that was preying on his people for food.
Gronsha took a few careful steps into the cave, went down on one knee and poked around with the tip of his sword in a pile of bones the light had caught. The bones did indeed show knife marks. Someone had painstakingly scraped off the flesh. They had broken open the larger bones to get at the marrow. Nobody had touched the skulls. He had the distinct impression that these remains were quite fresh.
He breathed out, stood up and tested the air. Perhaps the Groundlings had been, in all senses of the words, the smaller evil.
He strode on across the cavern, instinctively avoiding the patches of light. On the other side he took the next passageway and followed it, his stomach rumbling. All this running around had made him really hungry.
Gronsha’s trusty nose warned him.
A familiar smell told him that some of his own people were hereabouts, even though he could neither see nor hear them. It was strange that here the whiff of rancid fat from the armor was missing. Then he saw the firelight at the end of the passage.
Not wanting to get himself shot full of arrows by some over-eager guard, Gronsha did not try to muffle the sound of his approach. “Ho,” he called out, the cave walls echoing and funneling his strong dark voice. “I am an orc. From Toboribor! I need your help, Brothers, against the Groundlings!”
Two large solidly built forms became visible at the end of the passage, blocking out the fire’s light. The vague smell he knew so well was getting stronger, and shadows flew along the cave wall toward him. He could not yet see any details, but it seemed that the orcs from the Outer Lands were no less tall than those from southern Girdlegard.
They approached him, their deadly barbed spear points facing the ground. Gronsha assumed the vicious metal hooks would simply rip off under pressure and stick in the victim’s flesh. He regarded the weapon with respect.
A third shape joined them, hurrying up with a lantern to shine on him.
Soon they were in front of him—he saw to his surprise one of them was a female. Not only did the sight of her, with all those rings in her ears and the unusually delicate nose, excite him, but he wondered what she was doing casting her lot in with these warriors. It wouldn’t happen back in Toboribor. Women should be seeing to the food and the kids. And to the needs of the fighting men, to his own needs, at once, right here.
“Don’t move your hands,” she ordered in her husky voice. The lance point was placed at his throat and forced him over toward the wall. “Stay there. Brother.” The other orcs laughed.
Gronsha studied their armor and the helmets. They really weren’t using the life-saving coating of fat on the metal plates. They’d stand no chance like that in a proper fight. He couldn’t see the point of making your enemy’s job easier. All in all they looked fairly clean. At any rate they were much cleaner than him. Unhealthily clean.
He started to feel envious. That armor indisputably came from an orc forge. But the quality of the metal and handiwork was way above anything that he had ever seen made by Prince Ushnotz’s smiths. Could that be why they were able to dispense with the coating of fat?
“I am Gronsha. Take me to your leader,” he commanded, stretching to his full height. “It is possible that I am being followed. It would be as well for you to watch out.”
The woman looked along the passageway he had come down and then sent the two warriors out to check. “You’re from . . . where?”
“Toboribor?” She did not even look at him; she was watching what was going on down the passage. “What kind of a name is that?”
“What kind of a name is that?” he grunted indignantly.
He was surprised. “It is a mighty orc kingdom, far to the south of Girdlegard.”
Now she did grace him with a glance. The expression in her pink eyes hovered between indifference and disdain.
“An orc kingdom? That is good news for once. If it’s in the south, what are you doing in the north?” Her accent was painful for him: too clear and sharp. Arrogant, more like. “So you’re lost?”
“I command the troops of Prince Ushnotz, who rules Toboribor. I am here to look for allies to help us fight the Groundlings . . .” He bent the truth a little and noted from her face that she did not get his meaning. “You don’t know who the Groundlings are?” It was getting more and more difficult. “Then you are indeed blessed by Tion and Samusin, if you haven’t met this plague of ax monsters,” he snorted. He held his hands at hip level to show their height. “This size without their helmets. We call them Beard-Faces and Rock-Lice and usually—”
“Oh, of course. I know them,” she interrupted. The two orcs she’d sent out to reconnoiter were back and gave the all-clear. Nobody had followed him. “Our names for them are different. It’s not often that one of our Brothers”—she emphasized the word and smiled— “takes the path and comes to Fon Gala.”
“To where?” Gronsha asked.
“Oh, the Outer Lands. That’s what we call it.”
“Welcome.” She widened her smile, baring her teeth and showing her fangs.
Gronsha liked her. He wanted her. When he had captured the stronghold he would take her for his wifeand breed many children on her. He bet she’d never had an orc like him. He would break her in and teach her how a woman should behave.
“You may come with me, Gronsha. I’ll take you to our prince. He will be pleased to hear news of Toboribor.” At long last she removed the spear point from his throat and gestured toward the end of the tunnel where the light was coming from. “After you. Brother.” That set the orcs off laughing again.
They reached a large cavern that was part natural, part artificial. A hundred paces wide and two hundred in length, as high as the tallest tower on the Stone Gateway. In the middle a small stream flowed and along its banks black, five-cornered tents had been erected. There were several kinds of smell he noted in the air: food was cooking, and there was beer brewing somewhere. There were coal fires burning in glowing iron braziers.
Gronsha wondered why the normal unmistakable smell of his own people was absent—that heady mix of strength and presence and superiority, that the Red-Bloods said “stank.” The brother and sister orcs from the Outer Lands couldn’t have been here long.
He could not suppress a grin. Guessing at their number, he arrived at a couple of thousand. At least. With a force of that size it would be easy to wipe out the Groundlings.
His companion pointed to the largest black tent. “In there.”
Together they crossed the campsite, followed by the curious gaze of the many orcs gathered there. Gronsha tried to make himself look impressive. He spread his arms a little and made his gait powerful. He bared his teeth and rolled his eyes.
“I’m bringing the prince a phottòr,” the orc woman called out merrily. “He’s from an orc kingdom far away.”
The others standing around put their heads together and were talking amongst themselves, glancing now and then at the newcomer in admiration. At least, that is how he interpreted their behavior.
“What is a phottòr?” he wanted to know, without changing his demeanor. Two of the females were making eyes at him and he puffed himself up even more to impress them.
“That’s what we call you people. In our language it’s a term of honor.”
Gronsha raised his broad chin. He liked honors; they suited him.
As they stopped at the entrance, the orc woman held fast to his arm, warning him, “You must be courteous, Gronsha. Maybe our ways will be different from your own.” Then she pushed him into the tent ahead of herself.
The interior was illuminated by hundreds of lamps. Gronsha saw an orc of mighty physique four paces away, reclining on luxurious bright-coloured rugs as he dined. A mantle of black silk was draped around his shoulders; it was the kind of thing an effete Red-Blood would wear. The weapons arrayed behind him on a wooden stand could have equipped a small army. On three of his fingers gold rings reflected the light.
This prince was certainly the biggest orc Gronsha had ever seen. He felt the size of an adolescent in comparison to this giant. His face was broad, with a narrow moustache, and he had a high slanting forehead. The black hair was braided. The prince stopped eating, his curiosity roused. “Kamdra, my dear. What have you got there?”
“Noble Lord Flagur,” she said, bowing to the prince. Gronsha followed suit. “I bring you a gift, Illustrious One. He was found in one of the passageways we thought was defunct.” She pushed Gronsha forward. “He is called Gronsha. His speech is difficult to understand. A degenerate, my lord. But he speaks of an orc kingdom.”
Flagur sat up and placed one hand on his knee, gesturing with the other for Gronsha to approach. “Fine. Gronsha,” he repeated slowly, trying out the sound. “It suits him.” The look in his pink eyes was considerably sharper and more severe than that in the woman’s.
By now Gronsha had got over his surprise, though he was still having to contend with the revoltingly sweet perfumes wafting around inside the tent. Scents, cleanliness and an unfamiliar way of speech. These orcs were not behaving normally at all; certainly not in their treatment of him. It pricked at his pride and he drew himself up. “I am not a thing. And definitely not deg . . . delg . . .”
“Degenerate?” suggested Flagur.
Gronsha made to take a step forward, his pride stung to boiling anger. “Prince Flagur. You must give me your . . .” A burning pain bit at the back of his neck. He whirled around, spitting, and saw Kamdra. There was blood on the point of her spear—his blood. “You—”
“No. You will address the prince as Your Lordship and Noble Lord, as you ought.” She held her weapon ready.
“I will teach you our ways, phottòr.”
He growled at her but made as if to obey. Now he was resolute: he would take this woman, would break her will and make her his slave. He turned back to Flagur. “Give me your support, My Lord,” he repeated. “ We must attack the stronghold of the Groundlings—”
“He means the ubariu, Illustrious One,” Kamdra interpreted.
“No, their ubariu, Noble Lord.” The orc woman sounded highly amused. “It seems they have them over there on the other side of the mountains as well. But they have nothing to do with the phottòr, I’m sure.”
Flagur nodded and seemed good-humored now. “We’ll find out about that soon.” He nodded to Gronsha. “And you. Tell me about this orc kingdom of yours.”
Gronsha spoke of Toboribor, about the caves, about his master Ushnotz’s army, about the ineffective bastion clumsily erected by the Groundlings at the Stone Gate, and he told Flagur of the desperate state of the army of men and of elves.
He asked for charcoal and paper to draw a rough map. Pen and ink he left untouched. Unschooled in their use, he would only end up breaking the nib and leaving blotches everywhere. “Girdlegard is easily conquered, Prince Flagur,” he enticed. “I know the territory inside out. Give me your best warriors and I will take the Groundlings’ stronghold.” Another sharp jab in the neck, and Gronsha quickly added a yelled “Your Lordship.” Oh, he had plans for breaking Kamdra’s resistance.
“So that you can hand the stronghold to your own prince?” Flagur laughed outright. “Never.”
Gronsha bowed his head. Blood was trickling down his back inside his armor. “No. I thought that Your Lordship could become the new leader of all the Orcs. Think of it: at least five thousand more fighting men at your disposal. Your Lordship.”
The orc prince’s eyes narrowed. “Why would they follow me?”
“Because I would support you.”
Flagur exploded into hysterical laughter, and then Kamdra joined in, forgetting this time to punish Gronsha for the missing Your Lordship. “Exquisite,” he roared. “Tell me, how are you going to get them to follow a stranger’s command? Would you take over their minds? Even my best rune master would not be able to do that. Not with five thousand.”
Gronsha did not answer, caught unawares. “Rune master?” He blinked.
Kamdra helped him with the word: “A rune master uses invisible powers. You wouldn’t understand, phottòr.”
Gronsha understood only too well. He was dealing here with orcs that had their own magus. A magus.
Now it was clear that with their help he would be able to crown himself ruler of all Girdlegard. But for that he needed power over the tribe.
His plan was simple and effective: he would kill Flagur when he got the chance and then he would proclaim himself ruler, according to the custom of the orcs. No one would doubt his superiority ever again, if he were able to kill this giant of an orc. “Illustrious One, do I get your warriors or not?” he asked, adding emphasis to his words.
Flagur, who had by now managed to stop laughing, fell into hysterics again and collapsed onto the rugs and cushions.
That was what Gronsha was waiting for. He hurled himself forward, reaching for his dagger, aiming the blade directly at the prince’s heart.
Still laughing, Flagur grabbed his sword from behind and slashed at the attacker.
It was a brutal blow. Not only was Gronsha thrown off his stroke, but the short sword sliced through his armor and the flesh beneath; streams of his dark green blood were spilling fast and he tipped forward onto the couch where Flagur lay.
“I knew he would try that,” grinned the prince, wiping his blade on the dead orc’s clothing. “It’s a classic move for them. Violence. That’s all they know how to do.”
To make sure, Kamdra stabbed Gronsha in the back with her lance, inserting the barbed tip and using it to haul the corpse off to the door. “Your Noble Lordship was brilliant, as ever,” she said, bowing to him.
But Gronsha was not dead in the least. He used his dagger to slash away behind him, severing the shaft of the lance; he jumped up. The gaping wound in his chest had closed up, with the Blood of the Perished Lands effective as always.
He hurled the dagger at Kamdra and hit her in the left shoulder. Three swift paces brought him face to face with Flagur. He pulled one of the swords out of the weapons stand and brandished it. The prince used his short sword to hit at him and Gronsha stood firm to demonstrate his limitless superiority, taking the blow on his left forearm.
The wound was deep and painful, but it healed over in front of Flagur’s very eyes.
“Look what I can do!” Grunting he turned to Kamdra. “Pull my dagger out of your shoulder and see if you can do the same thing.”
But Flagur, rolling back over his shoulder away from the carpets, selected a spiked mace from the stand, wielding this in one hand and the short sword in the other. “It has a little secret,” he grunted with delight, his pink eyes shining. “You’re not immortal, are you?”
“Yes,” squeaked Gronsha in his excitement, his voice too high and too loud. One stroke, another, and he would be leader of all the orcs. “Unlike you!”
His opponent grinned like a wild animal. “Let us find out.”
He attacked Flagur, who swerved out of the way and had the mace raised in his hand to strike at Gronsha’s back. Expecting the move, Gronsha dived underneath the whirling flail and rammed his sword up to the hilt deep into his enemy’s belly. “Die!” he rejoiced. “I am the new ruler.”
His joy died abruptly as Flagur dropped the sword and grasped Gronsha’s throat in both hands, lifting him bodily into the air, right up to the roof of the tent, at full stretch. The sword in his belly didn’t worry him at all.
Gronsha kicked the hilt of the sword. His foe should have been screaming with pain, but he gave not a murmur.
“Let us talk, Noble One,” Gronsha gasped, terrified for his life. He didn’t attempt to struggle his way out of the vice-like grip. He groped for the leather flask he carried at his belt. “There, in there. That’s my secret. The Black Immortality.”
The fingers pressed harder still and he could feel the vertebrae grating in protest.
Gronsha threw the flask onto the floor. “Take it, by the dark forces of Tion, take it! Take it but let me live,” he whispered. “I want . . .” His voice failed him; he could get no breath.
Suddenly his neck broke under the enormous pressure. The undead life of Gronsha, the last of the scouting force sent out by Ushnotz, seeped away in the powerful hands of Flagur. The prince threw the cadaver to one side. “Kamdra, get the healer and the rune master,” he said, his voice strong, and he sat himself back onto the cushions, careful to ensure the sword did not snag in the fabric. Only now did he permit himself to show any sign of weakness: he grimaced. The excitement of combat and killing faded away.
“What happens to him?” asked Kamdra, indicating the corpse.
Flagur took up his short sword gingerly, sliced off a strip of calf-flesh from the dead Gronsha, and swirled it around in a bowl of water to get the dirt off. Then he put it in his mouth and chewed. The flavor was a strange one. “Delicious,” he said, and invited her to try the meat.
Kamdra took a taste and her eyes widened. “I’d never have expected that. He stank so strongly I thought we’d have to leave the meat to soak for seven moons.” She bowed and hurried out to fetch the rune master and the healer for her lord.
“Wait,” he called her back. “Send to the ubariu to say we have news for them. They will be very keen to learn what is happening in Girdlegard.” She nodded and left.
Flagur couldn’t control his appetite and he ate several more strips of flesh from the delicacy he himself had selected and slaughtered. With prizes like that, Girdlegard held a definite attraction for himself and his followers.
He stretched out his hand for the leather flask, opened it and sniffed the contents. The smell was appalling, and the fumes made his eyes water. Revolted, he tipped the liquid into the rubbish, throwing the empty flask along with it.
The weapon piercing his body was torturing him, but he would survive. He put his faith in the help of Ubar, his god, and creator of his people.
Around him everything started to swim. His pink eyes slid over toward the tent door, whence several vague shapes were drawing near. A voice close to his ear said, “Noble Lord, we are about to start. Be strong and may Ubar be with you.”
“He will be,” muttered Flagur, tensing his muscles. “Get on with it.”