The Dead Song
by John Wolf
They call it the Cairn. According to map and High Command, my Station covers over four days of blasted desert and rock. The only things living out here seem to be the whip-vine, red-heels, and me. No Raider activity yet and my escort, a dwarven ox-driver name Reinhardt, assures me there will not be any. I know I should be grateful. This Station is a mercy after all, but I can only confess on paper the very notion makes my blood boil. I am a scout. Instead of riding the wind or cutting trails, I am tethered to this Station like a mad dog to a post. I will do my best to stay positive. Einhardt’s disposition is going to make that quite the challenge.
Einhardt insists on low fires. Felt like arguing with him about the need since he insisted on little Raider activity. He is strange even for a dwarf, and it is not my place to judge. His kind have never waged Brotherly War, never killed and mutilated each other by generations. Einhardt is not much for any sort of conversation anyway. Each night we make camp he is quick to uncork a jug and drain it. Even if I were not an elf, I imagine he would still keep his distance. There is good reason his people stick to the mountains separating our realm from the Cairn. From what I have gathered over this short time together, he has been gray-haired since birth, an ox driver for half his years, and he snores. I wonder if Einhardt’s coarse life is to become my own over time at my Station. If yes, forgive me All Mother for thinking so, then those bastards should have killed me back on the battlefield after having their fun.
The orc stops to let his worn lungs rest. Each breath stokes the dying embers in his chest, giving him strength to push on just a little more. Each heartbeat drives a dagger further into his chest. This momentary resting spot becomes camp. The orc observes it from a flat rock. The floor beneath the steep overhang is smooth and soft. Lash berry grows along the perimeter. A crevice in the side of the ridge makes for good storage. At least it will once the strength returns to his limbs. It is a good camp. If death is coming, he can think of no better place to find it than the Wasting Way. Where else than a place where sky and earth are stained blood-red?
The orc’s back howls in pain as he lies down upon the rock, but he remains silent. His sword arm grows heavy. His fingers no longer dance around the grip in the nimble fashion of a younger orc. They too cry out in pain at the Cold Twist that assaults his joints.
A blackbird soars overhead in the heat. It is no more than a speck at first, but it flies down towards the earth with a song. It lands atop a lash berry shrub and pauses its song to eat. The orc locks eyes with this harbinger of death, its gold eyes strangely like his own. In that gaze the orc sees the Hag was right to send him away.
He approaches the lash berry shrub but the bird refuses to yield. The orc envies the little bird’s bravery. He plucks a berry from the shrub and shares some with his death warrant. The taste is soft and sweet like cool water from atop a mountain. The blackbird sings its song anew. Then it stops and tilts its head at the orc. The orc listens. Hoof beats, faint and muffled in the stifling heat. He is not so alone it seems.
Einhardt is not much for goodbyes. He offered me one chance to come back with him to the mountains. He promised me dwarven hospitality would be more gracious than anything out here. He might be right, but after my refusal he gave me a grunt and left. He is not doing his people many favors acting that way.
My command at this Station is simple and direct: Investigate, track, and report any Raider activity should they take the Brotherly War as an advantage to move against the southern settlements. If Raider forces are observed, signal north and await reinforcements. All Mother, can they not say anything short? In my own words, I believe these orders mean I am on my own. The signal fire is nothing but an old cauldron filled with solid oil fats. I do not think anyone outside of a day’s ride could see it. If that is the case, I do pray Einhardt is right about no Raider activity. If anything is encountered, this Station will make for a poor defense.
It is really just a gated enclosure surrounding the main building and a single dawn hut. To the east of me is a rocky hillside with plenty of places to hide. To the south, nothing but more red rocks giving way to a ridged tree-line. Beyond that I cannot say what remains. I am left with my own provisions and a single horse bought before leaving the dwarven market. The old gelding is difficult to ride, stubborn to feed, and generally in a foul mood. Does not seem to mind the surroundings much. Wish we shared that trait. I will scout the ridge once the Station is secured to my standards.
Cannot stand this quiet. I hear nothing more than chirping insects and the wind, but still wake covered in sweat. My hands can barely hold this quill, never mind draw a bow. Dawn is well ahead still, but I can write by lantern. But, must try to rest and Einhardt did warn me about low fires.
Daylight now. The pen for my horse is still in a sorry state of repair. Supplies left for me by the previous command hardly amount to much. I will do my best to make do. The horse will have to make do being tied to a post. It does give me more reason to scout the ridge. Some of the lumber there must be half-decent.
Damned Red-Heels! Found them slithering all over the horse’s hooves. I kicked them away before any could bite my only mode of transport. They could not wound me through my boots, but one gave a good try. Felt the leather pinch my toes. Must bring back lumber tomorrow.
The lizards don’t make much of a meal, but the orc cannot let his strength run dry. Their red scales make them tricky to find in the sand, but the orc’s keen sense of smell and quick hands aid him as his sight fails. He cooks them on a bundle of kindling scraped from the trees at his back. Four sizzle and spit over the fire, hissing like they still live. The smell almost tricks the orc into thinking he is back home in his brother’s house. Sounds of earthenware and drinking horns clinking together materialize out of the desert wind. The blackbird’s chirps and whistles become the bustle and conversation of his people. The wind dies, and the orc remembers where he is and why.
The lizards’ greasy bodies slide down his gullet. The meager contents of his pack are all set away in their proper place. His oilskin hangs beneath the lash berry to catch fruit and dew. He prepares a bed on the sandy ground beneath the rock overhand. His sword is easily secured between the rocks so it is ready when the Hag’s prophecy comes to pass. The red sky is dotted with silver light. He counts the stars, finds the signs taught to him by his mothers and sisters. There is the Harbinger, ax at ready. Then he sees The Matron nourishing his people from her breast. There is the cluster of stars towards the south his brother always called The Stepping Stones, leading them home again.
The orc’s heart grows heavy. There is no more laughter and conversation in his brother’s house. Home is empty as the Wasting Way. The silence of this place is a greater foe than the orc has ever faced. So, he sings songs passed from father to son, brother to brother, and elder to young. The blackbird even joins in on a few. The words and verse echo amongst the stones of his camp, like he is back with his people again. The old songs make him young in a way.
The winds shift. Something wicked flies with it: smoke and scorched leather. This is no cooking fire like he deduced last night with his mind still half-drunk with sleep. The orc climbs his overhang again and settles on his haunches. To the north, the wooded ridge. The steepest part descends into the basin and the lowest rocks form his camp. Nothing that way, nothing of consequence at least. He senses another presence with the north winds. The northeast though, even with dwindling eyesight he can see the smoke rise against the cruel sky. The Harbinger’s ax-head points that way. Trouble.
The orc lies down, rests his scarred head on gnarled hands. He counts, scans. Nothing moves across the Wasting Way. Night is descending swiftly and he doubts his strength. He studies the smoke. It can wait to tomorrow. The bodies burning in the fire aren’t going anywhere.
Having trouble keeping eyes open. Been awake nearly a day-and-a-half with nothing but work in between. If I run out of ink, I could use the blood from my fingers. Everything in the Cairn is sharper than the executioner’s ax. From those red-heels, the plants, the rocks, even the wind is like a dagger in my face.
No Raider activity.
Smoke towards east. I could see it from the ridge. Possibly Einhardt but more pressing priorities remain. Firstly, securing my camp. Do not believe I am alone here. The horse made an easy time of navigating the rocky terrain up the ridge. A small path just on one side of my Station helped. It got so narrow at one point I needed to dismount and walk the horse the rest of the way. Could hardly move on either side, but the animal behaved admirably. Only when we made the other side of the ridge, he smelled something he did not like.
The ridge to the south curves out into the Cairn like a hook. The basin extends all the way back to the mountain range. From this vantage point, I spotted a lone traveler on foot advancing towards the smoke. When I tried pressing my horse further, the animal refused to budge. The closest I could get was the basin’s edge.
From the tracks, they’re too tall and large for an elf or a dwarf. Not a Raider I would assume, but nothing can be certain. Gathered what felled wood I could find and hauled it back to the Station. My horse was eager to oblige.
Security is now chief concern. A trench already ran around the north end of camp, but after a good half day’s work it is deeper and extends completely across to the hillside. Reinforced doors with timber. All food stuffs will remain in here with me. Whip-vine thorns block nearly all ways in and out. Might be drastic, but the figure and smoke in the distance tell me to prepare for the worst.
The orc knows an ambush when he sees it. Scorched flesh hovers in the air and cuts through the dwindling smoke. Only a bare frame of the wagon still smolders in the dirt. The rest is reduced to ash and ground down by hoof and foot. He can still trace the pattern of attack easily enough. The wheel ruts tell the story. Among the sandstone pillars in this rough canyon were a handful of good archers. Flaming arrows spook the wagon team, rushing them forward into the box before the driver can think. They run scared directly into the rest of the attackers waiting with swords and axes at ready. The orc can’t judge the attackers too harshly. It’s exactly what he would do.
The driver’s fate is another matter. The orc is no stranger to death, but this one shakes his heart. The remains of the dwarf, at least the pieces not burnt, are already being picked clean by the lizards. The damnable things seem to be everywhere. He can’t be sure if they took his eyes out after he was dead or his attackers did it to him alive. The orc knows lizards couldn’t cut a body open and shovel burning coals inside though. Lizards have no need to send a message. Whoever did this made their point clear enough: Stay out.
Light horse tracks surround the carnage. They circle the wagon, stop at two piles of blood and gore. They butchered, dressed, and packed away the oxen before leaving. Whoever they were, the orc doesn’t think they were in a hurry. From there the hoof prints lead back out towards the Wasting Way, southwest of his own route back to camp. From here, there is no sign of the basin. The ridge camouflages the whole area as just another mountain range easier to go around than over.
Tracks crisscross the dirt. No more than ten or twelve riders by the sign. A single pair of hoof prints lead off from the rest directly for the ridge. The orc wonders what kind of warrior would break away from the rest of his party. The orc grunts, takes another sniff of the air. Wherever they left to, it leads directly back towards his new home, the camp where he is to meet his end. The Hag’s words come back to him now:
“Your time is ending. No brother, no kin, no name. The scarred line of your name must end. Seek your death far from us.”
Death drew unclean things. No one could doubt that looking at the corpse of the dwarf. The orc left his name and tribe behind for that very reason. Now it seems the Wasting Way held true to the Hag’s words. Death had been found amongst the red rock. Lizards scatter from beneath the corpse. The orc ignores them. He gives what rights he can to the dead. Dwarven tongue is something beyond him, but he assumes they cannot all be savages. Then the orc is back across the Wasting Way, swifter and with another kind of fire burning in his chest.
The rider whoops with glee into the night air. His newly acquired horse races across the desert. The protests and threats of the horse’s original owner fade into the rushing darkness behind him. The animal is not too agreeable with the new rider at first, but his harsh spurs and tight hands on the reins bring it to compliance. His brother will know how to properly break in the animal. It is an old horse, but with a strong spirit. The rider is so sure his brother will be pleased, and so bursting with pride, he doesn’t see the giant shadow leap down from a nearby boulder. He flies from the saddle into the dirt flat on his back. Pain like a great mountain sits atop his lungs. The shadow lumbers forward to meet him.
I am a fool. Sergeant-at-arms would have me drug from my scouting unit for this. Drifted off to sleep after making reinforcements, but did not bring horse inside. Travel kit is also gone along with a few provisions. Thief made a quick escape off to the northeast. Signs only point to one person. Not the giant from the day before. Too small and too sly. That means multiple hostiles, but I shall worry about one after dealing with the other. Leaving this message should I not return. Heading off on foot in northerly direction to maybe overtake the thief at the entrance to the basin. I need my horse to serve this Station.
High Command was right in sending me out here. Only they should have sent me and another eight or ten swords. Cannot blame them for not wanting anyone else under my command. My horse came back of its own accord last night. Nearly ran directly into its flank as I stumbled about in the dark. Saddle was intact, but bloodied. My kit and provisions are gone.
Tracking from horseback was difficult but necessary to cover more ground. Came upon the remains of the thief. Something severed his head clean from his body. Then whoever it was made off with it. From the body I guess it was a young man. A Raider I assume. They have no cohesive uniform or Station as far as I can recall from our records, but rather run in several ragtag groups. I suppose his tribe or party will come looking for him.
I believe the giant from the basin is responsible for this death. The tracks look similar to the ones from the ridge. Whatever they used to sever the Raider’s head worked clean. The spine looks cut easy as goat butter.
Double-timed it back to the Station. The trench now circles almost everything at the front of the Station House. The rock wall on the rear negates digging it any deeper. The horse gets his own pen now, and that is protected by the trench. Anyone looking to grab my only transport this next time will get a stake through their neck. Another long day.
An elf. He didn’t believe it at first. So far south, they hadn’t ventured this far in his lifetime, but the orc sniffs the air and is certain of it now. An elf. She has clearly walked the Warrior’s Way. Violence is written across her arms, back, from the ragged ends where her ears used to be to the patchwork of scars across her shaved head. After reading the story cut across her body, the orc debates his next move. He loathes resting amongst the rocks and shrubs like one of the lizards. One crawls across the ground towards him. It rests on one hand, hisses a challenge, but the orc ignores it.
Her preparations are worthwhile. He doesn’t think the trench will do much good. A canyon like this one, anyone coming will make too much noise on horseback. Traveling on foot, they will certainly notice the trench. Everything else looks admirable though. Even the placement of this post is wise. With a rock wall at her back and one side, the elf will be hard to sneak up on. The orc can’t creep closer down the hillside. The narrow pathway and boulders would trap him like fish in a net. The ridge will have to be close enough.
The orc grumbles. Can’t get close, and even if he does the elf will probably put an arrow through his chest. This is a foolish errand. His own brother would tell him so, but the orc never liked leaving anything to chance. The rider last night had been a scrawny boy with barely any soul to swing a sword. Good with a knife, the orc gives the boy that much. His shoulder still throbs from the freshly bandaged wound. He didn’t bother asking questions, sword and knife did for words and the conversation ended rather quickly. The boy couldn’t be from this camp. The elf doesn’t seem the type, even from this distance, to willingly accept foolish, over-brave, young ones into her command. If the boy had been more like her, maybe his head wouldn’t be on a spike back at the orc’s camp.
The lizard hisses again and bites the orc’s callused thumb. He grimaces, bares his tusks, and the lizard makes a hasty retreat. Not hasty enough. The orc snaps its neck and continues his observation.
If the boy didn’t come from here, the orc guesses his people are out somewhere amidst the Wasting Way. Which leaves both him and the elf alone against them. One warrior alone in the Wasting Way against ten or more swords, the outcome is grim any way the orc thinks it through. The elf could hold out in her camp for a good while, but the Hag used to caution that even water cut through stone with enough time. However many others are out there, they will keep on the attack as long as it takes. The boy was a fool, but his people will not repeat his mistake.
The orc takes in the elf’s camp again. She is digging a fresh well closer to the main building. The orc nods silent agreement. No doubt her provisions are stored inside. Anyone coming for a fight will certainly get one here. Still, he wouldn’t make a stand here for all the songs, praises, and prizes in the tribe. At least not alone. The thought comes and goes to him swift as the wind. Two warriors against many. That could be a different song all together.
The orc normally wouldn’t imagine standing back to back with an elf. The way his father and mothers told it, the elf was not a hardy race. He knows the elf are like seed pods. They flit and float from place to place, landing only long enough to make a quick settlement before spreading out for more. His people fought hers over land and settlements long before either of them drew breath. The world thought the orc’s people brutish vagabonds, but the orc knows his kind are different. This elf in the camp though, she too is different. This one walks like she has already died. The orc knows the blank face well. He wore such a face that night the Hag sent him on his way.
Another lizard crawls out from the nearest rock to inspect its dead brethren. The orc rolls over to stare at the barren sky and thinks. An idea comes to him.
Somebody put chopped wood and fresh meat on the outer perimeter. They know enough to avoid the trench. The red-heels could be from anywhere, but the wood is certainly from the ridge. Portions of the tree line are missing. Not Raiders then. The only one nearby is in no position to do anything ever again. I suspect the giant from the other side of the ridge. Should take this as a friendly sign. I believe this is their way of saying hello.
Decided to leave a small token in return by the perimeter. I have extra stores of brandy and tea. This will be a small sacrifice on my part. Not keen on making friends, but out here any friendly relation should be cultivated. Until Einhardt arrives with resupply or reinforcements, there’s nothing else to be done. This other party seems to be reaching out and it will pay to make inroads while I can.
Another early morning. The brandy and tea are gone.
The dried herb smells nice. The orc places a little on his tongue, but the crumbly mixture sticks to his mouth like potter’s clay. The dark liquid, he imagines it might be medicine, is far worse. A small whiff singes his nostrils and for a while he can smell little else. He takes a small sip, spits it out, and watches in awe as flames spout out of his small cooking fire. He sprinkles a little more onto a branch and holds the torch aloft to the evening. The dark liquid is both awful and wonderful. It feels like a burning coal when he applies it to his wounded shoulder, but the orc recognizes the value. He stores it in a safe place.
The orc is dressing and skinning a few more lizards, a small price to pay for such odd things from the elf, when the smell comes. At first there is only the warm tang of blood in the air, but a high wind comes from north hot and coarse with the sand. It scrapes and cuts away the wild smell of blood. Others are coming. He douses his crackling fire but knows it is too late. The rider’s people, there is only one light they could have seen across the Wasting Way. The Station is well-hidden behind its rock wall. The orc does not mind.
First there is the smell, dust rising to meet him, and then he can even hear the hoof beats rapidly approaching. Thunder booms in the dirt. They reek of musty earth and hard-pressed sweat. Less than a day’s ride off. If they want vengeance for their fallen rider, they will not stop to rest. The orc stands, takes in a mighty lungful of air. They are near but he will be ready. The time is near, he feels it like the hooves in the earth. He sings his death song.
Another gift from my neighbor. We seem to be building a mutual partnership. This time it is more prepped red-heels and a bunch of whip-vine fruit. The red-heels make favorable salt meat, but the whip-vine fruit smells like carrion. The dark juice will work nicely as paint or ink if I ever run out of either.
No sign of Einhardt. Some possible sign of activity to the Northeast, but hard to be sure. The only thing I can be certain of is that this back-and-forth will eventually need an end. Better I initiate it. Scout training is hard to ignore: If confrontation is needed, make confrontation on your terms.
Tomorrow I will head back towards the wooded ridge. If my theory is true, I should find the giant just beyond the tree line. Hopefully things go well.
They come at dusk, swinging west from their route and flanking the camp with the sun at their back. The camp is deserted. The fire pit glows, but the rock overhang is empty and the sandy floor beneath it lies undisturbed. The Leader brings his horse and those of his men behind to a snarling, snorting halt. Foam and spit clings to the panting animals’ lips.
Leader barks orders to a smaller, older man. Little Man and a younger, one-eyed raider dismount ahead of the others. One-Eye draws a sword, Little Man follows unarmed, but his hands hover above several short spears dangling from his belt. Leader remains atop his horse, surveying the surroundings. The cruel, iron spurs on his heels sing out an eerily happy tune in the dry evening.
The orc decides to try for Little Man. His face is scarred and hardened by warfare like the elf’s. Little Man is older and moves slower than One-Eye, but he was obviously keen enough to keep both his eyes. The orc leaps off the overhang, sword lifted, bellowing out a war cry, and his face painted in fearsome red. It is the way his people enter battle, shaking sky and earth to conquer the enemy’s will before claiming their life. It is the weapon the orc and others before him used to carved out a mighty kingdom. It is a foolish.
Before he can descend and land a killing blow, Little Man flings a short spear from his belt into the orc’s shoulder. It punches through bone and sinew clean out to the other side. Little Man yanks back and hauls the orc to the floor like a catch of fish. Leader remains atop his spooked horse. None of the other Raiders move, but some rise from their saddles in anticipation. Little Man readies another spear. One-Eye comes close, sword ready. The orc lies on the ground and bleeds. One-Eye steps closer. Leader shouts a warning, but it comes too late.
One giant, green hand clamps across One-Eye’s ankle. The orc squeezes till bones grind together between his fingers and palm. One-Eye tumbles to the ground, great plumes of dust rise in the struggle, clouding Little Man’s vision. Leader orders his other men forward. More red clouds of dust shoot up when they charge ahead. A brilliant, blue eye like a moonstone from the Hag’s runes stares at the orc through this rising wall of red dust. It is a single eye. He stamps it out with one thumb. One-Eye shrieks and thrashes beneath the orc. The orc lets him stand, watches him flail, then fall back down again on his ruined ankle.
Some horses spook and throw their riders to the ground alongside One-Eye, but Leader stays steady. The orc jumps to his feet amid the growing chaos. The first Raider that passes him falls to the ground with a broken neck. Then a second spear slices into the orc’s thigh. Every nerve inside bursts into flame. Little Man throws this rope to Leader, who secures it to his saddle. Little Man tightens his grip on the rope connected to the orc’s shoulder. The orc roars out, but his strength his sapped and he is drug into submission. The remaining Raiders take turns kicking him and pummeling him with their bare fists, but nothing outshines the pain from the spears on other end of his body. Blood pools around him, turning the red earth into scarlet mud.
The ropes slacken and the orc is lifted to his feet. Now Leader dismounts. The youngest Raider, a boy with sandy hair, takes hold of the reins. Leader’s spurs continue their merry music as he walks up to face the orc. Leader looks his catch over. His breath smells worse than the elf’s brandy. The Dark Speech is tattooed from the corner of his mouth to his ear. The veins around it pulse with sickly blue blood. Leader sniffs him. He spits.
“Orc.” The orc recognizes the world. He’s heard it enough times in hatred and anger to know its meaning. “One orc takes three of our own,” Leader growls. The orc growls in return, Leader studies him like dung caught on the heel of his boot. One-Eye cries out for help. He crawls across the sandy floor beneath the overhang.
“Leave them to the Waste,” Leader declares. Little Man nods. He draws two more spears in one hand and gets to work.
My choices are either fight or flee. Not sure which is the best option. Time in the Cairn leaves ample time for thought. I think about what would have happened if I had come to the giant’s camp sooner. But giant is not the right word anymore. Orc. I have finally seen one up close.
Thank the All Mother I brought my horse. It took several tries to find the camp from horseback. It is cleverly tucked beneath a rocky cliff facing the Northeast. It offers a whole other view of the Cairn. Maybe if I found it sooner the orc wouldn’t be so close to the end now. Maybe we would both be dead. Might be just as well. He will probably perish by nightfall.
The Raiders meant to leave him as a warning. Even as just bones it would have made for quite a sight. Staked and drawn like an animal at a skinning camp. Red-Heels bit off pieces of his feet. The only thing that kept him alive was the very torture the Raiders inflicted on him. With his arms pinned up, the flow of blood was slowed. Others were not so lucky.
Two dead Raiders at the camp as well, three if I count the missing head. There was a bloody pike in camp. They must have taken the head with them. Perhaps the Raiders do care for and bury their dead? If they do, it is a selective process. One Raider lay in the dirt with a crushed throat. The other lay beneath the overhang curled up like a child. The spear wound in his chest did not match any weapon I found at the camp. Blinded in both eyes, one recently gouged out. That I count for the orc.
My new charge weighs close to a boulder. Green all over, but not the terrifying, green lamplight our people speak of. Green like grass grown wild in the hills. Hair, what’s left of it, is black as the whip-vine juice. He is savage. I have three bodies to prove it. It’s the teeth that made them the horrors of our people and campfire tales. They look like something from a wild animal’s jaws. My horse does not much care for the smell of him. Getting the orc back to camp was a chore all its own. The damned horse cried and whinnied nearly half the trip back. Although, I am now confident the Raiders are no longer near. Anyone nearby could have heard my retreat.
It’s been two days and no sign of the Raiders. If they return, they will eventually discover the orc’s camp empty and make a search. How long till they find me here is debatable. Their motives and actions are clear enough. They will aim to finish what they started and will include me in their plans. All I can do is what I have done for the last two days: prepare defense and think of praying. Only following one action now. The second may come later.
The orc died in his sleep. His breath faltered and stopped. If I had not been keeping watch, he might have stayed dead. Basic training came to immediately. I forced nearly all my shoulder into his chest to bring about a coughing fit. When it finally worked, the orc gasped in a lungful of air so vast it about suffocated me.
He does not care for the brandy compresses I force on him. He curls his lips like a hound. The guttural speech even sounds similar to a dog clamped onto a bone. Still, they help him gain his breath back and he seems to understand.
He watches me as I write even this. I hope he cannot understand me. If he knew how I failed my scouts, what was done to me, why I am really out this way, he would certainly flee such a disastrous soul. He might not like knowing he was dead for a short time either.
Some progress being made between me and the orc. He heals fast and is already walking again. He tries to hide his pain, but sometimes cannot help wincing. The grimace is hard to ignore through all the tusks and teeth.
With a little trouble, I convinced him to help me split some wood and draw canvas for a few more dawn huts. It forces him to work with me. I hope that in doing so, the last of the trouble between us will dry up. Time will tell.
We have developed a rudimentary way of communication. Mainly consists of etchings in the dirt by the fire and hand signals. It is a child’s way, but it is all we have. He tells me quite a bit about the Cairn just through these drawings. The ridge separating our two camps seems to stretch nearly all the way back to the mountains themselves, but curving away so sharply so as to trick the eye.
It explains the Raiders’ absence. If they rode on past the orc’s camp due south, they would go a long ways before realizing the short way around actually lies behind them to the East. When they do, it will not be long before we meet them. The Raiders could number anywhere from ten to fifteen. I cannot be entirely sure of the orc’s count, but he gives the matter healthy thought before answering. If I light the signal fire, it will bring them right down on top of us before any help can arrive. No one will help us. When I drew a glyph of a dwarven ox and cart, the orc shook his head and wiped the image away with a weight upon his heart. Words for now seem unnecessary.
The idiot will not stop looking at my ears. He does it every time I busy myself on the other side of the Station. Hard not to notice him. He has about all the subtlety of a bear and tread like an ox. Earlier today I swear he almost made a move to touch what remains of my ears. If he tries it again, I will succeed where those damned Raiders failed.
The nightfall brought chills. They scratched and bit. His bed on the floor was soaked through with sweat the first night. Now, the orc feels nothing of the kind. The fire crackles nearby, kissing his skin with welcome warmth. A feeling not quite like home, but close enough to soothe his spirit, falls over him while he looks up into the shadows among the rafters. The orc gets up and walks outside.
The wounds in his leg and shoulder still throb with each step, but his gait goes easier now. When his arm refuses to cry out in pain at being lifted above his head, the orc fights to control a gleeful shout. The elf needs her sleep. While he has been resting, she toils in the camp. Even in the dim starlight, he can see how much the place has changed since his last sight of it. The trench is wide, the rock wall cleared of any brush that might hide an arrow. The pen is finished now too. The orc steps up to the wooden railing. The horse steps back but does not kick and scream. The orc can’t help noticing the worn hide and ragged mane of the animal. It is the color of smoke from a wet fire. Weak, but still alive. The orc steps away.
The stars observe the orc’s wounds as he stands naked in the night. A single thought echoes within him on his long walk to the ridge. He should have died. The Hag is always sure. Her pronouncements are never to be questioned or challenged. To do so would mean an early exile, shaming the faces of his family. Only the orc knows that is no longer a concern. He thinks of his brother, his father, mothers, sisters. All gone beyond to their own journey, the one to take alone. He wonders if they all passed their test and found strong enough alone to be held among many. A chill washes over the orc and he wonders no more.
Rock, sand, and lash berry attack his bare feet. The orc pays it no mind. Pain both old and new fog over his senses. The elf floats across the ground silently enough to catch him unaware. The arrowhead whispers against his neck light and soft as a leaf. The tension of the bowstring trembles in time with the orc’s heartbeat. The elf’s too he imagines. The orc stops walking. They stand still for a moment in the dark.
The elf speaks, “What are you doing?” The orc cannot understand her words, but imagines what he would ask of someone found wandering naked in the dark. He sighs and his breath becomes a cloud before him. When he turns the arrowhead rests against his throat. His hunter’s eyes fall on her flat and dead as river stones. He leans into the arrowhead and warm blood winds down his neck.
She lowers the bow and waves back towards camp. “Come on.”
The elf gives him a hide blanket. The Hag always teased the children for being elves when they covered themselves at the river. On that the orc guesses she was right. The elf is strange, but she did invite him into her home. The orc covers himself and sits across from her by the fire. His eyes go wide when the elf boils water and dumps the dried herbs into it. The sweet smell is almost choking in the small space. When the elf hands him a mug, he burns his tongue. The elf smiles. The smile is hard to place amongst the scars.
She draws a shelter in the dirt by the fire. Then come two figures, one slim as a willow branch holding a bow. The other shaped rather like a boulder wielding a great sword the orc recognizes. They shift and dance in the firelight like living beings. They flee from the shelter in the direction of the elf’s finger. She walks her hand across the dirt towards scratched mountains. The orc considers this idea and sips his tea. Now it tastes sweet as flowers on his tongue. The elf arranges a curved line of rocks between the figures and the mountains. On the other side she scratches out men on horseback.
“I was an archer,” she says as she draws, “A good one if my sergeant-at-arms is to be believed. Not quite so sure myself. But, I could hit a moving target alright.”
The orc counts the figures on horseback. He adds three more. Twelve now wait across the ridge. They draw back imaginary bows and charge their little encampment. The orc flicks his ears. His eyes go to hers. The scarred bunches of flesh on either side of her face go redder than the fire. They look like the rough ground of the Wasting Way. A thought dashes through the orc’s mind, but the elf covers her ears with her hood and the thought is gone. But she cannot hide the scars across her face and hands.
“Got captured.” She swallows. “Always was careful, me and my scouts. It’s a border war though. The Brotherly War. Like fights like.” The orc sips his tea. A night bird cries out.
“It’s a hard thing, sneaking up on an elf, never thought of it that way until after. When they caught me, they must’ve found it easier to do what they did if I didn’t look like them. So, they made me look like something else.”
She grabs a bottle of brandy and takes a deep swallow. She offers the bottle to the orc. He frowns and covers his mouth. The elf pours some into his near-empty teacup instead. He sniffs the mug, tries some, and the elf cannot help laughing at his scrunched up face. The orc does his best to approximate a laugh of his own, a throaty woof from deep in his throat. She drinks some more from the bottle and the bitter liquid seems to bring her back.
“Everybody thought I was dead. Until I fought my way back, I felt sure I was dead.” The elf shakes her head. “Guess I’m still dead.” The fire nearly leaps out of floor when the orc throws his spiked tea into it. The elf watches the flames, an idea forming within them.
The orc leans forward to wipe away the two running figures. He fumbles with the foreign tongue. On several tries, his teeth trip his tongue. It finally stumbles out, but the meaning remains clear.
“Dead. Both dead.”
I think it is almost time. Saw dust trails coming from the south on our last trip up to the ridge. It must be the Raiders. They have discovered their error and are correcting course. The shortest way around the ridge will bring them straight through to the Station. The orc and I can communicate well enough now, and he agrees. Two days of fletching and making preparations. Preparations, it feels like the only thing I have done since coming here. All I have ever done since surviving my imprisonment is prepare for this fight. I do not know whether that gives my heart strength or saps it.
The work puts the orc and I in the same company now. We are a unit of two against twelve swords. We are both wounded soldiers, and I believe we both know how this will end. The only question is when.
All-Mother, I am exhausted. I wonder if I can manage to draw my bow when the time comes. Today was all hauling buckets of red mud and painting it across canvas. The orc has become quite skilled with the wood ax and carries it with him. We have laid out our plan. Many variables in it, but I must admit it fills me with a spark I thought long gone by now. I have a purpose. Memories cannot help but come back to me now. I like to think the old unit would approve of my actions and this plan. They never were avenged. I have never said it to anyone, but I can write it here for someone to find afterward:
I only thought of myself. When escape presented itself, I took the chance. Maybe now things can be different for my unit now. It might be time to even the scales
Now is the day. It gives me a heavy heart to let my horse go. The old gelding has been nothing but trouble since my arrival, and I have only ridden him a few times. He has also been a constant companion, and I cannot bear losing an animal to the fight that is coming. Like always, the horse refused to do as he was told. After enough rough encouragement, he took to the ridge when I let him out of the pen. The horse gave my orc friend a short snort on the way.
Dust trails to the east of the ridge, nearly parallel with our camp. Must make sure they see us. Signal fire is lit. The orc is singing atop the hill across camp. Cannot call it a cheery tune, or much of a tune for that matter. They will hear it and see our fire. It is time.
They do not come charging through. Caution and order are the words of the wise and living. Anger and bloodlust fueled them when they fought the orc and gave them strength. It also clouded their judgement and forced them on an unnecessary trek across harsh ground. Now Leader has full control of his men.
He brings half of them from the front. On the rocky hillside to the left come Little Man and the remaining half. Little Man is almost twice over Leader’s age but moves silently as a lion among the rocks. He serves as a good reminder to the others that a survivor is more important than a warrior.
The Station is deserted. Leader, still mounted, directs five men forward, keeping the sandy-haired boy close at hand. They search the empty pen. The dawn hut holds little more than farm tools and a muddy bucket. The Raiders advance upon the Station House itself with caution. It is a wide structure. The front door swings in the wind. The first Raider advances from the side, ax and dagger at ready. He is so keen on conflict, he never notices the tripwire in the doorway. Neither does he notice the basket hanging above. Even Little Man’s keen eyes are too late.
Before anyone can shout a mere warning, the Raider catches the wire. The basket overhead turns over, jostling the red-heels inside awake. They pour out, hissing angrily, and immediately clamp down onto the first place they land. The Raider rushes out of the doorway, one eye bursting out from between a lizard’s teeth, the fresh bites on his face already turning purple. The hissing and screaming blur together.
Leader’s horse snorts and nearly tosses him as it rears back from the sight. A quick jerk on the reins brings the animal to heel. Leader’s men on the ground with him are not so easily calmed. Foam flies from the bitten Raider’s mouth as he bleats in pain. Another Raider steps forward to help in some way. Something bright flits out from the Station’s doorway. The flaming arrow streaks through the air, whining like an angry insect, and plants squarely in the approaching Raider’s heart.
He drops to the ground and the bitten Raider falls with him. A second burst of light from within the Station. Heat ripples the air by Leader’s face as the second arrow streaks by. This time the horse does throw him to the ground. Despite the pain in his back, Leader smiles. They seem to have missed him. Then the arrow finds its mark. The brandy bottle hanging in the tree explodes in a vicious gust of flame.
The cool morning air comes alive with heat and pain. Glass and flames fly down as a third arrow connects with another bottle. It spreads across the dry tinder scattered across the ground. A wall of fire traps the Raiders between the Station House and the pen. Leader and his men crawl for the pen’s meager cover. His shouted orders on the ground are useless. He signals Little Man on the hill above. Arrows fly down across the Station House, but the low porch covers the doorway. After a moment, they light their own arrows and the Station House begins to burn. Little Man’s people are too busy providing support to notice the red, rocky hillside stir to life.
The orc, covered in red mud cracked and dried to match the rocks, stands up behind an unsuspecting Raider. The man can only choke out half a scream before being thrown off the hillside into the rocks below. He unwraps the wood ax from its own red-painted sheath, and goes to work on the rest.
Burning brandy splashes over Leader’s arm. He rips his jacket off and throws the burning garment down before it can spread. He blinks and barely notices the next arrow coming at him in time.
“Get around them!” He gestures to the two furthest Raiders cowering behind the fence. One has already taken an arrow in the shoulder, broken it off, and thrown it to the ground. He stands with bow drawn and receives an arrow through the eye.
“Get around!” Leader repeats himself to the remaining man. He takes hold of the boy and shoves him towards the other Raider. “Go!” They crawl through the dust towards the side of the Station House.
The battle atop the hill is in a pitched rage. Two more bodies fly down to the rocks, bloodied and broken. The orc howls in fury and charges the next Raider. The Raider feints, draws a short sword from his sleeve and slashes it across the orc’s arm. Blood meets red earth. The orc connects the blunt end of the ax with the Raider’s face, knocking him against the rock wall. Little Man stands away, readying short spears from his belt. The orc grabs the fallen Raider for a shield. The spears sink into the Raider’s back. The orc advances on Little Man. He throws the body forward.
Little Man stumbles, but regains his footing easily. They stand for a moment, taking each other’s measure. Little Man is unlike those recently under his command. He is not dead, he is not young and foolish, and there is no fear in his eyes. He absent mindedly reaches for another spear, but only meets empty leather loops and desert air. A moment of panic flashes across his face, then it is still again. Little Man draws a cruelly-hooked dagger and hand ax from behind his back. The orc gives him a toothy grin. This is the death the Hag spoke of.
The two Raiders worm their way through the dust and sand behind the Station House to meet a bare rock wall. The screams of battle echo throughout the canyon. With no way in, they turn to leave and bring the fight back to the front. Then the rock face waves in the wind. The boy draws one finger across it and his hand comes back covered in red dust. He recognizes a blind when he sees one. His father would use such a ploy to draw prey in. He realizes too late. An arrow pierces his throat. Another flies out, sticking in the leg of the last Raider.
He calls out a warning, but nothing can be heard over the screams of the dying and the burning trees. The canvas parts. There is the Station House beyond it. The darkness inside moves and steps out into the sun. The elf stands in rags dyed pitch black with whip-vine. To the Raider, she appears as a demon spoken of by campfire light. He screams but another arrow silences him. He falls next to the boy gasping for air through his ragged throat.
The elf pulls the arrows from their bodies to refill her quiver. There is the Leader to attend to. She considers going back through the Station House to finish this with one well-placed arrow, but the smoke and growing flames block her way. The elf nocks an arrow, some sunlight glinting off the blood still sticking to the head, and goes around to the front.
Little Man whirls, strikes, falls back, and comes again. He darts like a viper among the rocks striking out at the orc’s knees and limbs with the ax, going for eyes with the dagger. Each time the orc is able to keep his opponent at bay, but he breathes harder with each attack, moves slower in each recovery. Little Man comes for him again, and the orc moves in time. The hand ax cuts across his elbow and strikes the rock beside him instead of splitting his chest open. The orc retreats back to the narrow path and throws his weapon down. Little Man jumps back, but closes in quickly. His prey is on the run it seems. The orc backs up two steps, then another. Little Man follows him into the rock arch. Nothing but bare rock meets the orc’s back. When they come close enough, Little Man goes to swing the ax, but only smashes his hand on the rock ceiling overhead. He draws back the dagger, but his elbow collides with rock instead. The orc only needs his hands.
He catches hold of Little Man easily. The fight still comes, but it is no longer about speed or cunning. Brute strength encloses Little Man’s head. Little Man slashes wildly and fights for his life, but it is no use. The orc fights like the dead. A few more cuts hardly matter. Little Man drops both his weapons when the orc smashes his skull against the rock wall. He sputters and coughs blood through broken teeth. The orc strikes again and the noise stops. An eye falls halfway out of its socket. Little Man goes still. The orc swings a final time. The skull gives way like an egg. Little Man tumbles down the rocks and joins the other dead men. The orc wipes bloody streaks across his wounded chest and roars out into the morning sky.
Leader, alone behind cover, locks eyes with the orc. A single look is enough. He rushes for the canyon mouth, hoping to catch his horse and make a swift retreat. The fire behind him has died down enough to make an escape. An arrow cuts across his shoulder. The elf, dark as midnight in her rags, readies another arrow as she rounds the Station. The orc is charging down the hillside like a storm, the wood ax back in hand. Leader dashes for the canyon.
Smoldering ground gives way into the trench and Leader falls into the earth. The snapping bone seems to quiet everything else. The elf and orc advance, ax and bow at ready. Leader lies in the red earth, his head looking off in a direction it should not be. His glazing eyes roll towards the two figures above. He tries to speak, but only a low croak emerges from his broken throat. The orc chuffs air his nose, lowers his ax. He knows an animal caught in a trap when he sees one. The elf removes her hood. Leader gasps in horror at the scarred face. Finally he manages:
The elf reaches out to her ears, but stops at the disfigurement. Leader’s last thoughts are of disappointment. Little Man was certain this was an elvish outpost after all. Leader will have some strong words for his second-in-command after taking his final ride across to the other side.
“No,” the elf says. “They made me like you.” She looses arrows till her quiver is empty again. It is an exorcism of sorts. Each arrow in Leader’s body does not always carry a name, but they do always carry a face from her past. The fire hungrily burns away everything else. Then it is done.
This will be my final entry. Raider activity encountered. Station destroyed during the final attack. Unknown at this time if other Raider parties exist in area of Station. Will attempt to locate help to the Northeast. Hope that the Brotherly War has ended so help is quick in coming. Orc encountered was killed in Raider attack. His bravery and actions should be commended.
15th Regimental Scout Assigned to Cairn Station
She closes her journal for the last time, sets it atop the charred tree stump beside the wood ax. What others, if they come at all, will make of her record does not bother her. The elf knows the author of the journal is gone along with the rest of her Scouts. They crossed over to the All-Mother’s embrace long before her, but her spirit joins them now. As for who she is now, the elf believes that in that regard they will just have to wait.
Help is coming. To the mountains in the Northeast come new dust trails. The elf guesses Einhardt’s people looking for him, or perhaps reinforcements after seeing the fire two days before. She really doesn’t care much one way or the other. The desert air stirs ash around her boots. A heavy hand falls on her shoulder. She turns and nods to the orc.
The elf doesn’t care how many lies she put in her final entry either. In a way, she knows it is the truth. The orc did die. Now they are born anew. He hands her the reins to the horse. The old gelding found refuge in the wooded ridge like the elf thought. It appears to her that the animal and her new companion have come to an understanding with each other. The horse is packed and ready. The orc does not lend her hand up into the saddle. They have come to an understanding with each other too. The orc picks up the wood ax and walks alongside the elf and the horse. They head south.
The orc hums, then the humming becomes a song in time with his gait. The elf doesn’t know the words, but she understands them just the same. The orc sings of what the Hag prophesized. He sings of death, new life, battles, and all the things that came to pass. The orc sings a death song for their old selves. She called it the Cairn, he called it the Wasting-Way, but now both orc and elf just think of it as their old life. Now they turn their backs to it and sing their song. It becomes a cheerful tune the further they leave the Station behind. The song will be sung for generations to come among the tribes of the southern border. The story will shift and change like the desert wind. Even when the two do finally pass on, they will live forever in the words. For now, a lone blackbird swirls in the rolling, hot air above and joins them in song.