A Different Perspective
Jessie figured her best course was still to head for the western cliffs that bordered the valley, and try to get on over. After all, she had plenty of climbing rope once she had a chance to braid the lengths of leather thongs together, and the elf didn’t seem to weigh hardly anything! Jessie felt pretty confident that some special gift of the cloak was keeping her from leaving tracks, but she didn’t trust her life to the idea, so as she headed West she concentrated on moving from tree to tree across a staggered pattern, never a straight line, but always closer to the western cliffs. Behind her, the sounds of heavy orc boots crashing through the undergrowth faded away, to be replaced with the sounds of her own labored breathing and the occasional night sounds of normal nocturnal life in the forest. As the night and the forest passed around her, Jessie remembered well the lessons of Fergus. “Remember lass, you can be certain that the cairns are full of hasty warriors that were ‘pretty sure’ they were safe! Don’t act just cause yer blood is up! Just when you think the enemy has screwed up good an’ proper is when you’ll find they were jest suckering you in! Have patience, cool down and think straight!”
After traveling for most of the night with only the briefest of pauses for water, Jessie felt just about ready to drop. She felt like she had traveled many miles in the dark, but her winding, twisting path had brought her only part of the way to the western cliffs. The weight of the elf on her shoulder, that had seemed as light as a feather at the start, had become a leaden mass as the adrenaline rush had faded and the shakes had kicked in. Jessie felt just about ready to stop, set the elf down and take a rest break when she heard an indistinct orc mutter from somewhere ahead of her! Jessie wasted no time. Ducking for cover behind an old oak with easy to reach low branches, she waited for a moment to let her heartbeat ease and her labored breathing slow, and gently, carefully, set the elf down on the ground to make ready for battle. After a few moments, the tone of the distant voices registered. They didn’t sound excited or nervous, they sounded… bored.
Jessie once more picked up the elf, as gently as she could, moved her over her shoulder, all her joints screaming in protest, and climbed hand-over-hand up into the branches to tuck the elf into a cradle of limbs, using the last of the loose leather thongs in her pack to lash her in place. Jessie hung the axe and sword bundle from a nearby limb, and slipped back down the tree. Listening to the forest around her, Jessie loosened her own sword in its sheath, and tried to decide whether to creep straight ahead to investigate, or to circle around and come at them from the other side.
Jessie decided to try to circle around to the south and come in from the other side. No telling how many were out there, but if one was talking, that makes at least two, and if things went belly up, no sense leaving an obvious trail for them to follow back to the elf. Looking around, she fixed the elf’s tree location in her mind before heading out.
Moving as quietly as possible, Jessie slunk through the heavy growth and shrubbery, trying to listen sharp for more noises in case the orcs were on the move. She could hear faint movement of at least two people, but surely no more than three or four, moving recklessly through the brush, almost a stones’ throw away from her! After only a few minutes, she had completely circled around and behind them. She managed to get right up near them in the shelter of a lightning blasted spruce stump, when they suddenly stopped. There were only two of them, and as Jessie peered around the stump to get a better look, one of them suddenly spun around and looked straight at the stump, and then started moving right for it, and for Jessie too!
Jessie tensed up. “Damn it! Now after I kill these scum I’ll have to hide the bodies, or I’ll leave a straight line to tell the trackers which direction I’m heading!” Slowly easing her blade from its sheath, Jessie prepared to lunge around the stump and take the closest one in the throat. She already had proof they were very weak in the throat. She couldn’t stop the grin that crossed her face at the thought.
The orc suddenly stopped in his tracks, and reaching a huge paw into the front of his dirty woolen breeches, he pulled out his… no, he wasn’t really… yes, yes he was. The orc, not an apparent care in the world, began to urinate on the very stump Jessie was hiding behind!
With her blade half out of the sheath, ready to jump out and bring on the pain, Jessie could only stare in surprise. She felt her cheeks get flaming hot as the realization of what had almost happened almost overwhelmed her self-control. It was all she could do to keep from busting out in giggles right on the spot, but it didn’t take but a moments’ remembrance of her family and friends dead in the Keep to wipe the mirth from her face. She relaxed a little, but she kept the blade to hand until she found a real reason to leave them alive.
The orc standing out on the faint deer trail looked back over his shoulder at the urinating grayskin and grimaced in what seemed like honest disgust. In the guttural, harsh dialect of Orcish these gray-skinned bastards spoke, he called softly, “Would you stop pissing around and keep your eyes open? We’re supposed to be hunting for the traitorous bitch that gutted Single-Blow and stole the Axe of Thunder. If she slips by us and Chief Darak hears of it, it’ll be our ass.”
The urinating orc finished up, shook himself off, and stuffed it back down his breeches. Turning around while retying the rope around his breeches, the closest orc replied, “Never you mind about Far Dreamer. I was in the clearing, Nimdak, you wasn’t. This was none of her doing. It was the Speaker of Winds’ own damn fault, and I’m thinking I’m lucky to have gotten out of that patch of grass alive.”
Nimdak looked a little curious to hear what the other orc had to say, but he wasn’t quite willing to give up on his bitching yet. “I don’t care what did or didn’t happen in the clearing, Jarkad, the fact is that Speaker of Winds and Raktar Single Blow are dead, and the Chief is going to be looking for someone to take the ass off of to avenge his son. Especially after Raktar just got sanctified with the Clans’ gold troth for hero rights this season, and it got took from the body! You know that means we’re out of the Big Chant, and that we’re gonna be fucked by the other Clans next season if we can’t come up with enough gold for the spirits to bless before then. You ask me, you ain’t been so damn lucky yet. Five of you got out of that clearing alive, but that don’t mean you’ll be staying that way if we can’t find Far Dreamer. You was getting the browdown by Looks Far, but I was in the group that was sent off by Chief Darak. He was seven kinds of pissed.”
Jarkad walked over to a tree near the spruce stump, and with his right side to Jessie, hunkered down and kind of fell backwards to end up sitting back against the tree trunk in a half squat. Reaching into a pouch, he pulled out some strange tools and smaller pouches, and started doing something that took all of his concentration. It took Jessie a full minute to realize the orc was rolling a smoke! While on scouting patrol! With a distant expression on his face, eyes staring out at the dark forest, Jarkad placed one end of the thin tobacco-filled tube between his leathery lips, and with two claws gently withdrew a small stick of wood from his pouch. One end of the stick glistened in the moonlight like oil or wax. Jarkad reached down, and struck the side of his heavy leather boot with the wood. With a sulfurous flare of light, the piece of wood sprouted a small flame at one end, which the orc used to light his smoke. Shaking the stick until the flame went out, the Orc casually tossed the stick away into the brushes, while Jessie could only stare in wonder. She began to seriously question if all of these gray skinned orcs were wizards, if even a simple scout could summon flame at command.
Jarkad inhaled deeply of the herb smoke, drawing it down into his lungs, and held it for a moment before releasing it in a long joyful sigh. “Nimdak, set yer ass down and relax. Far Dreamer ain’t out here, and her tracks ain’t gonna be found around here neither. Let me tell you what happened and you’ll understand we’re just being jerked around so the Chief can feel better about this whole cluster fuck.”
Nimdak clearly wanted to share the smoke, and it didn’t take much convincing before he sat down next to Jarkad, back to the tree. Jessie noted with professional interest that the both of them sat with thigh muscles coiled and ready to launch them straight up or forward into a roll if something alerted them, but still let them use the tree for support to relax a bit. For all their pathetic light and noise discipline, they still would not be easy meat to take together by surprise.
Jarkad took another long toke on his smoke, and passed his pouch on to Nimdak, who started to roll his own. Looking out at the darkness again, he spoke in a very soft, almost dreamy voice that drifted a bit in pitch, now a little louder, now a little softer. “We was all about this little clearing east of here, the five of us. We didn’t get a chance to scout out the area, Speaker took us straight to the spot from the south pyre, and told us to set up, and that the bitch would be coming through soon. We’s supposed to make like a marmoset soon as she was in the center of the clearing, with two short grunts, and then he’d have the spirits do something to the clearing, and they’d take her down. Alls we were supposed to do was make sure she couldn’t run. Well, Speaker and Single Blow are off by this big ass tree, and we’re all hidden in the bushes waiting, and I’d barely gotten my spikes set in the dirt for a throw, when, just like a ghost, Far Dreamer came staggering down the path right into the damned clearing! She was holding that damn sword of hers in her right hand, but the blade was dragging its point in the dirt. She was favoring her left side with every step, you could see plain somebody’d gotten a good one in on her, either when old Black Face denounced her at the dance yesterday, or when Single Blow brushed with her earlier today. Seeing as how far we came, and how she was looking, I’d figure Single Blow did her with Thunder, and I had just gotten to figuring that Speaker musta done his bit of spirit tracking with her blood from the Axe when Riley did the marmoset grunts, and everything went straight to shit.”
Nimdak had finished rolling his own by this point, and had used a small stick of his own in the same way as Jarkad, striking the side of his boot and producing a small flame from the tip. Lighting his smoke, he passed the pouch back, and then asked, “As long as you were the one to bring it up, what the hell did Far Dreamer do to Black Face to get herself branded traitor? I was on nine angle watch with Drury when the ritual was going on.”
Jarkad hawked loudly, and spat into the bushes in Jessie’s direction. “As far as I could see, she didn’t do squat. Black Face and the other Clans’ Shamans were just finishing the induction dance, the spirits had brought the winds and fire to dance with the newbies, and then Black Face just reared back like he’d been stuck in the arse and pointed straight at Far Dreamer and claimed her traitor at the top of his lungs, right then and there.”
Jarkad laughed a deep rumbling laugh, and said, “Much good it did him. Everybody on the cairn thought he was pointing at them, and started running for a weapon in case it was a trick to get Clan Straight Legs up over the rest of us this time in the Big Chant. You know the stories of what happened last time.”
Nimdak grimaced and said, “Yeah, I can imagine. And by the time everybody got their heads out their backsides, Dreamer was long gone, huh?”
Jarkad laughed again, a bitter laugh this time. “Oh yeah, she made it out, right under the noses of all the seven Clans, but she didn’t stop to grab more than her sword, and she ditched everything we’d given her as part of the Clan. Even the d’raman. I guess we didn’t mean as much to her as we’d thought last winter.”
Shaking himself a little, Jarkad resumed his story. “Anyways, so there we are in the clearing, five of us surrounding Dreamer, here she is barely able to hold her sword at all, and Riley made the call. The Speaker shouted out a command to the spirits, and next thing we know, the whole clearing is lit up with this real bright light. Then right there in front of Speaker, a freaking demon pops out of nowhere, all shadow and flaming steel, and guts the Speaker like a pig, turns on Single Blow and shreds him, I mean it cut Single Blow to pieces, and mutilated his face until it was just MEAT.”
Jarkad took a moment to take a deep drag on his smoke, and visibly calmed himself down. Looking back out at the dark night again, he continued, “So you gots to understand, this was just in an eye blink. I mean, one second, Dreamer is in the bag. Next thing, everything’s all lit up, Speaker and Single Blow are not just dead, they’re slaughtered, with Raktar holding Thunder the whole time and never even getting a chance to lift the damn thing. The blood is just coming out of Raktar’s face like the freaking Evercloud Falls, and the demon turns around, bathing itself in the freaking blood, and then lifts it’s flaming steel and grins at us! It started coming after us, and we all of us took off out of there like rabbits. Wasn’t no word spoken that I can recall, we jest all o’ us decided at the same time to get the hell out of there before the damn thing was wearing our skins.”
Jarkad looked down at his smoke, which had burnt down to his fingers, and then muttered, “I scoured that clearing up one side and down the other after we got Chief Darak and told him what happened. Damn thing didn’t leave no tracks, it just vanished back to whatever hell spawned it up. And there was nothing left of Far Dreamer but a huge puddle of blood right near where she had been standing when we ran for it. Not even her sword.” Jarkad sighed again, this time sounding a little to Jessie like Fergus would when he’d get a little into his cups and started thinking about friends long dead in one battle or another. “I don’t know why the hell Black Face called her traitor, but I do know that no woman of any Clan should die the way she must have, and I didn’t even try to stand for her. Traitor or not, she ate our bread and shared salt, she di’nt deserve to go out like that.”
Nimdak shook his head, stood, and tossed his smoke to the ground, crushing it out beneath his boot. “Don’t matter should’ve or could’ve; the elfs’ dead, shamans’ dead, and our spirit warrior got gutted by a demon brought up by our own shaman. Clans’ fucked, Jarkad. Might as well head back up mountain for all the good we’ll get out of the Big Chant. Best we can hope for is to move the herd over to three moon valley and get ready to be shit on when everyone else comes back.”
Jarkad stood also, and tossed the remains of his dead smoke into the bushes. “I guess. But it ain’t up to me or you, and you know damn well Darak Skull Crusher ain’t gonna back down and do the sensible thing with his son dead in the dirt, our lucky elf made a cause for shame and her too dead to counter the charge in Tribal Council, and Black Face grinning behind it all. I ain’t a spirit talker, but I can see what’s coming just as clear as that stump over yonder. It’s gonna be war inside the month, and it ain’t gonna be up in the mountains this time, it’s gonna be right here in this valley.” Looking around in disgust, Jarkad spat one last time in the direction of Jessie’s stump, and said, “Ain’t no good ever came out of the lowlands. Flat land is cursed, no matter what the damn shamans say.”
Looking around, Jarkad grabbed up a javelin that he’d had lying near to hand, and said “Let’s get the hell out of here. I saw a set of old timber that looked like it’d be a fine spot to hunt boar, just over north of here. We got to be out here all night anyways, let’s go get something to eat.”
Jessie watched the two orcs move out to the north, but her attention wasn’t really directed at what the grayskins were doing anymore. Instead, she tried to make sense of what she had just overheard, and fit it into what she already knew.
Normally it would give her great satisfaction to know that the orcs completely misinterpreted what had happened in the clearing, and viewed her as a demon. It would certainly make future encounters with that Clan very… enjoyable. Right now, however, she was stuck wondering what to do about the elf.
“Damn, did I save an ally to the orcs? Did she have anything to do with the attack on my family? I could just kill her, it would be easy enough to do. But I wasn’t raised that way, was I? Why in Tyr’s name couldn’t she have just died before I ambushed the orcs, it would have made things so much simpler.”
“Well, one thing’s certain, with the wound she has, the decision ain’t up to me. If she lives or dies, it’s in Tyr’s hands now. If she ever wakes up, we’ll see.”
Jessie returned quietly, in a roundabout route, to the tree she had used to conceal the elf lady. Climbing up, she checked to see if there had been any change in the elf’s condition. To her surprise, the elf was noticeably hot to the touch, running a fever that must be just this side of a furnace. While the elf’s skin felt dry as bone, the leather strips Jessie had used to restrain her showed clear signs of moisture wherever they came into contact with skin. Jessie wasn’t a bonesetter herself, but she had helped the family healer enough times to know that when a person was wounded as bad as the elf and caught a fever, that if they stopped being able to sweat to cool themselves down, they weren’t long for life. If the fever didn’t break soon, the elf was finished. And being tied up a tree wasn’t helping matters any.
Jessie ruthlessly pushed her personal doubts about the elf into the back of her mind, and concentrated on doing what she thought of as her duty. For now, all she knew was that the orcs wanted the elf dead, so Jessie wanted to see to it she had a chance to live to spit in their eyes. She carefully lowered the elf to the ground at the base of the tree, and then lowered the weapons she had stashed, making doubly sure that they were well bound and not easily accessible.
Once at the base of the tree, where the elf could be braced upright against the trunk, she carefully exposed the elf’s wounded shoulder, and checked the wound to see if the moss needed to be changed yet. The sight of the wound had changed drastically in the five hours that Jessie had carried her over the shoulder through the woods. The edges of the wound had blackened, and pulled away even more, leaving a deep and horribly oozing wedge missing from her shoulder. Worse, the exposed pieces of bone looked blackened and burnt, as though they were cooking in an unseen fire. The moss that Jessie had used to pack the wound stank of burnt blood and flesh. Jessie stared for a moment, but decided that, whatever was happening, it must be real, and spelled certain death for the elf.
She carefully repacked the wound with fresh moss, and then shouldered the elf and weapons. The dawn would come soon, and she was no more than a few hours from the first of the foothills of the cliff wall. With any luck, there would be a place to take shelter and deal with this mess there. Despite how exhausted she felt from all the trials of the day, and then the unexpected dangers and strain of the night, she pushed on with the same caution and care as before, determined to see the cliffs before she paused to rest.
As she ran, Jessie replayed the conversation of the orcs over in her mind, worrying it like a terrier killing a rat. “Well, first things first Jessie, you need to get out of the valley before you make any other decisions. Dammit Fergus, I could surely use your advice now. I wish I knew whether the elf had ought to do with my family’s slaughter. If she lives, then I guess I can figure out if she needs killing. But she surely knows more about these grayskins than I do, and her counsel would be valuable in Caer Doneghal when it comes time to reclaim the valley and prepare for whatever they’ve got planned. I’ll have to bide my time and see what she knows, but I’ll be damned if I know whether it’d be better to kill her on the spot, or wait ‘til I’ve gotten some answers first, if it happens she is guilty of helping to murder my family.”
”Even though the scales are far from even, it’s nice to know that I took out two of their best. Even if it was just from one of seven Clans. And that I scared the beejeezus out of them to boot. But the grayskins themselves worry me. They’re much less bestial than the greenskins I’m used to seeing. And if lowly scouts can have magic of their own, what are the leaders liable to be like? I have to make it to Caer Doneghal, and warn them…”