Woe Be unto the Orc

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic


The original short story that became the inciting incident for Woe: A Collaborative Novel.

Submitted: November 29, 2017

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Submitted: November 29, 2017

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A smattering of dust blew over the moorland. Wind whipped down from the range of barren crests that rose like broken teeth ahead of Gaff. His skin was lathered in a profusion of sweat, causing the hides he wore to stick and cling as he trudged over the peaty soil. It had been too long since he had eaten, but he had to push on nonetheless. He had to put distance between himself and the slavers who had abducted him from his village.

With little more than belligerence he proceeded across the damp swath, deciding to rest before he attempted to surmount the naked ridge before him. Sitting upon a large rock, he rested his head in his hands as the dust blew down around him, turning to smears of mud when it contacted his damp skin. In many ways he was profoundly uncomfortable. Hungry, covered in grime, his feet ached despite tough soles, and his spirit—though buoyed by his escape—was undermined by the ordeal of his flight and the subsequent trek. His experience of captivity had done him no service, either.

At last he arose and began the laborious climb. Clawing at the bare earth, even as his powerful legs propelled him up the slope, he quickly wearied, so that he stopped again to rest at the summit. Gazing back the way he had come he saw riders in the distance. He cringed at the thought that he was being pursued. Yet was it so shocking to believe? No. He had expected it; still, he held out hope that the equestrians were human. Anything but elves.

Dwarves would have been a relief; of course, they plainly were not Dwarves.

Summoning the last of his verve, he trudged across the bald ridge-crests. They were thankfully few, and their crowns were punctuated with scrub juniper and stunted shrubs. At the opposite slope he peered down into a wide valley populated by a dense grove of pine, interspersed here-and-there with wide, leafy, deciduous trees. In the distance, there must have been a mountain, for the canopy seemed to rise, looming above the rug of foliage that extended before him.

He did his best to slide down the declivity into the woodland.

It was a blessing, a place to hide—even though the elves were talented woodsmen—but he would have to be quick about it. His pursuers, if pursuers they were, would be vastly out-pacing him. The crests would slow them down, maybe even halt their mounts, but they would gain on him nevertheless. He needed a weapon and a place to hide.

Traipsing around through the wood, he stooped to lift a rock. It fit his hand well: smooth on one side, fractured and jagged on the other. It would have to suffice. With a length of cord he could even affix it to a sturdy limb and have himself a cudgel. Besides, his ancestors had resorted to little more, often enough: orcs were not known for their craftsmanship.

As he wandered further he came upon an abandoned camp site. A fire ring was laid out in the center of a glade, filled with black char. Kneeling down to examine the traces, he discovered still-warm embers nestled beneath the ashes. Someone had been there recently. Last night, no doubt, and it had not been a large fire. With that insight a bolt of fear struck him like the clacker on a bell. Perhaps an advance party had been deployed to the woods to cut him off?

He guessed those who chased after him could theoretically be the same band, having circled back to see what was taking him so long...but he strongly doubted it.

Probably wishful thinking, that.

It was more realistic to suppose that they had sent a scouting party ahead and planned to surround him, using the hunting troop to route him into an ambush, trapping him in their midst.

His eyes probed the shady recesses but detected nothing of concern. Uncertain of what to do, Gaff stood there for a while, pondering his situation. He determined that he could not stay there; they might return tonight. Yet he was directionless—his village was far away and he did not know this countryside.

Not for the first time he privately cursed this ancestral struggle. It had begun so long ago that its causes had been given over to legend. There simply appeared to be an implicit and irremediable enmity between Elf and Orc.

But despite the bases of their feud, the orcs strove to comport themselves with honor. Not so the elves: They were a cruel and denigrating people who regarded their adversaries as savages, as less than they. Their haut arrogance, their supercilious demeanor, was intolerable. And perhaps, Gaff mused, that was ultimately the root of this entire bloody conflict: the simple incompatibility of conflicting dispositions.

They might be prettier, he conceded. They might even be wiser—they are certainly more erudite—but they are not better. They suffer an infection of the soul. It was the Elven Weltanshauung—that was the foundational ill that made an end to the strife impossible.

The battle cry of the elves was ‘Woe be unto the orc.’

He shook his head as if, in doing so, he might fling away the thoughts from his mind. He needed to act, needed to prepare. It was necessary to operate under the assumption that elves were near, patrolling the vicinity, and that reinforcements would be arriving soon.

Again he cast his eyes about him, and his porcine lineaments contorted in speculation upon noticing something curious. He maneuvered himself to a better vantage and saw that it was so; it was no trick of the light; it was no illusion. At first, he had suspected it might simply be a shadow draped upon the bole of that vast and ancient oak—but he saw now it was, indeed, an aperture.

Gradually he advanced, slinking over the carpet of fallen needles until he reached the opening. It was large and arched but he would nevertheless have to stoop to enter. Lowering himself into a crouch he lifted his rock high and leaned in to peer around the archway.

What he discovered took him aback. He had expected an animal den—perhaps even a bear—but not this... for she was more beautiful than any Elf or Man.

Her hair was like precious metals spun into finest gossamer, and it seemed to hang like cumulus upon the air when she turned her head to face him. And her features were exquisite as the most artful of statues.

Her figure was likewise elegant: slender but shapely, to the loftiest of classical metrics. Fair was her skin, and marbled with rings and whorls of honey-colored pigment.

What is she? he wondered. But when his pupils met hers it felt as though he were sinking, as if some ensorcelment were drawing him into those pools a-swirl in a mist of dream.

When she spoke, her voice was like a choir of Seraphim, and his trance was lifted. "Oh, hello there," said she. "But whatever is it that brings you hither?"

"It is the elven folk," he declared. "They raided my home, took me captive. But I escaped, by chance, and I fear they search for me even now. I found a ring of cinders..." he indicated the direction with his rock.

"Why, yes," she chortled.

When she said nothing more Gaff began to grow nervous, shifting his feet awkwardly and attempting not to gawk at the beatific creature. Shortly she became rather amused by him and, covering her oddly colored lips with a honeyed hand, she giggled and said: "Yes, it was the elves. They are ever welcome in our sacred grove."

"Elves are welcome?"

"But of course, they are most respectful of our home."

Gaff snorted inadvertently. "Yours, maybe—not mine."

"There is nothing to worry yourself about. There will be no violence done here," she said meaningfully.

"That’s what I was hoping,” he said, but noticed she was staring at the rock he still clutched in his hand. Feeling somewhat embarrassed he tossed it out of the tree bole.

“That’s better,” she said. “My name is Daphodella. What’s yours?”

“I’m called Gaff.”

At this, she chortled again and said, “come, let me show you about, ere my husband returns.”

She took him by the hand and, even through his rough calluses, the strangeness of her touch surprised him. He caught himself before he pulled his hand away from hers.

“This way.” She guided him out of the tree, deeper into the wood. Vines and creepers laced their path through the underbrush, and there was no trail—not even a hint of one.

Birdsong became increasingly abundant until it reached a crescendo of magnificent proportion, resounding all about him with a frantic vivacity. Idly he wondered if the creatures had never seen an orc before.

Stepping through a final screen of verdure, they came into a vast, hidden interior. Vaulted by a lofty canopy, carpeted in spongy mosses, the cavernous space was defined by great arboreal sentinels with mighty trunks and sky-raking boughs. A crystal pool glistened before them in the half-light that filtered through the ceiling of foliage. Gaff’s immediate impression was that this was some sort of a paradise.

“What is this place?” he said.

“This is the Temple of Urd,” she said simply. “Come.” She led him past the pool, to a stand of small, gnarly trees bearing golden fruit. She plucked one of their offerings and passed it to him. “Here, eat,” she said.

Gaff gratefully accepted and, tentatively, he tasted of the golden morsel. It was sweet as cognac—almost saccharine—and filled him, instanter, with a vibrancy unmatched by even the finest of Dwarven liquors. Weariness fell away from him like old scabs, and aches-so-ingrained-that-he-did-not-know-he-had-them melted into obscurity. “By the Divines, what is this?”

Daphodella chortled once more, saying, “it is Ambrosia. We Tree-Folk partake of it often; it is hallowed to us and it is why we defend this wood.”

Confused by her claim to being of the ‘tree-folk,’ as he believed them to be synonymous with the Eants, he nevertheless had the presence of mind to say, “thank you. I’m honored to receive such hospitality.”

“Of course,” she said. “All are welcomed graciously here.”

They commenced to stroll amidst the sacramental orchard, the great sentinels’ branches lacing high above it. Gaff continued to relish the golden fruit, taking small bites and exalting in the ripples of ecstasy that coursed through him with each bite.

Something struck him.

Dropping the fruit, he fell to his knees, clutching at the fletched shaft that protruded from his abdomen. The ripples of ecstasy were already but a distant memory, replaced by throbbing agony.

Blood poured liberally from the wound. He kept a calloused palm pressed firmly against the injury, feeling the warm, sticky cascade of his essence flow out to salt the earth.

Up ahead, three elves stood before him in their elaborate armor. Daphodilla stepped between him and they.

“Stand aside, Dryad,” demanded one of the elves.

“You dare commit a sacrilege in the Temple of Urd!”

“We dare to reclaim a run-away.”

“It is forbidden! This is a sanctuary. You have violated the sanctity of our grove.”

“We do as we will, Dryad; I assert the right of dominion over this wood, in the name of the empire and the elvish lords.”

Gaff became dimly cognizant of a terrible commotion, a racing drumbeat that pounded the earth and announced the arrival of something enormous behind him. In an attempt to turn, to see what was this massive intrusion, pain lanced through his torso at the slightest twist and he collapsed onto his side in the process. Dragging himself to a nearby fruit tree—with anguish racing through his sinews with every strain—he propped himself against the bark and turned his head toward the commotion.

Darkness started creeping into his vision, like ink, blotting out his periphery. Color drained from the world, but he vaguely awed, nonetheless, at the appearance of a humanoid tree marching into the sanctuary. It roared fiercely and, looking back to the elves, he saw them lift their bows in dread. They launched a volley of arrows at the incoming colossus, but they proved ineffectual against the raging Eant.

“You!” roared the Eant, “who poison our soil! who threaten my wife! who violate our treaty! who assault me and would slay my guest! begone! No more are the elves welcome here. Leave now or accept the trespassers’ conviction.”

A thrumming reverberated behind the Eant, emanating from the encroaching blackness. Hooves, Gaff thought mildly, and soon his mounted pursuers charged into his attenuated field of view, lances raised, shouting their infamous battle cry: Woe be unto the Orc! The Eant spun about to engage them and the elven lances drove into his bark-like hide.

His cry of pain and fury rang through the glade, loud even to Gaff’s diminishing senses. Gaff saw what must have been blood—thick, sap-like, translucent-amber fluid—moisten the Eant’s hide. But he could observe no more, for the darkness extinguished his mind.

#

Gaff’s vision returned slowly.

At first, he was merely aware of the existence of light, but slowly his senses regained their acuity and he realized he was now indoors. He felt tentatively at the wound in his abdomen and was surprised to discover that the damage had mended; there was not even any tenderness there.

Slowly he sat up, noting that he was lying on a cot. The room inside of which he found himself was of singularly odd construction. There were no boards or rafters visible, no joints, as if the structure had been grown rather than built.

He heard a noise in the doorway and turned to see Daphodella entering. She carried a tray of the sacred Ambrosia. “How are you feeling?” she asked.

“Remarkably well.”

“Yes, well, I tended to you with my magic and alchemy, and the healing juices of the sacrament.”

“I am forever in your debt. Should I ever make it back to my people you may forever more count my tribe as friends. How...how is your husband?”

“Dendrus is fine.”

“What became of the elves? Are they still here?”

“Dendrus dispatched them.”

Relief settled over Gaff. For the first time in too long he could take comfort without the fear of being hunted. A cloud swiftly eclipsed his gladness, however, for he knew that he would be at risk on his travels back to his village.

As though Daphodella could read his mind, she said: “Do not worry. You will be safe here. The elves are no longer accepted in the Temple of Urd.”

“Yes, well, there is still the journey back...”

“Fret not, Orc. Dendrus will accompany you.”

“For sooth?”

“Yes,” she chortled. “Besides, how else might we initiate negotiations with your kind?”

“Negotiations? And what might those be?”

“Dendrus would propose an armistice among the orcish tribes, and an alliance with the Tree-Folk. The elves have broken our compact and committed violence in our home. Dendrus has denounced their rule. But we must have aid to oppose them. Do you think your people would be willing to join him?”

Tree-folk joining the war against the elves? The orcish people were disorganized and independently-minded, prone to infighting, but if there were anything that could bind them to a common cause it would be their enmity with the elves. “Yes, I think so,” Gaff said.

“Good. I must call a sept. You should eat before you set out.”

Daphodella led him into the next room, where a great table seemed to sprout up out of the floor: like vines reaching up to intertwine themselves into a wicker-like board, laden with food.

Gaff was feeling desperate for meat, as orcs ate little in the way of vegetables, but he expressed his gratitude nevertheless for the spread of berries, greens, melons, nuts, and other victuals that awaited him.

Once he had ingested all he could stand of what he considered “elf food,” he and Dendrus readied themselves to depart. Stepping out of the abode, he discovered that he was high above the forest floor, in one of the monumental trees that defined the Tree-Folk’s temple. In fact, the rooms he’d exited were inside the tree. He assumed the chambers had been chiseled out of the trunk, but he inquired of Dendrus on this matter.

The Eant boomed: “Absolutely not. That would breach our covenant with the forest. The augustwood tree grew in this way as an invitation to us.”

As he stood on the balcony-like projection that extended from the trunk, Gaff thought, how peculiar that a plant might do such a thing.

“We,” Dendrus went on, “are a long-lived people. Dephodella and I have dwelt here for several of your generations, and never in that time have the elves comported themselves so wantonly.” There was deep sadness in his strange voice; that sparked sympathy in Gaff, even-though he felt he more accurately understood the true nature of the elves. He was mildly surprised the elves had not disregarded their agreement long before. But it was clear that Dendrus and Daphodella—and seemingly the other Tree-Folk as well—believed the elves to be the courteous protectors of nature they purported themselves to be.

He studied the Eant for a moment before speaking again. The branching antlers, ragged mouth, trunk-like torso, towering height and tough, gnarled flesh—he was amazed and perplexed at how profoundly the Eant differed from his wife, physically. He also noted the deformations—knot-like—in the rugged hide, scars left by elven lances.

“How did you...” he started to say.

The Eant’s wooden expression relaxed and he said: “We Eants are not quick to war—but once we do, it is no mean feat to subdue us.”

Gaff accepted the response; unspecific though it was, as it only obliquely hinted at what fate may have befallen his pursuers.

“Let us be off,” Dendrus said.

Gaff was surprised to discover that the augustwood had gone so far as to provide them with the approximation of a spiral staircase that wrapped around its great stem. The steps were of an awkward height, which did not surprise him given that they must accommodate both the Eant and the Dryad—both sexes of the species—simultaneously. For himself, they were rather on the large side, but manageable—after all, he was quite a bit larger than Daphodella—Meanwhile, Dendrus took them several at a time and still seemed to be treading lightly.

Once they reached the bottom, crossing out upon the enormous back of a root, it became difficult for him to keep abreast of the Eant, even-though Dendrus appeared to amble at but a leisurely pace.

They swiftly left the temple behind them, striking once again into the surrounding (and more canny) woodland, and thence to the ridge. When they came to the wood-line, Dendrus halted and pointed down along the verge of the trees. Following his indication, Gaff saw an elf hanging by his neck from a limb, high above the ground.

It was a warning.

“I have declared war on behalf of my people,” said Dendrus. “All but one I hanged about the perimeter of our steading, as a message: the Tree-Folk shall no longer accommodate the presence of elves within their borders.”

Gaff couldn’t help but grin. “And what of the last? You say you killed all but one. Did he get away?”

A creepy, rasping noise emitted by Dendrus—like the sound of dry, wintry branches scraping in the wind—was what Gaff had to assume was a chuckle. A haunting chuckle. “I sent him away,” said Dendrus. “As a courier.”

“What were his instructions? What is he supposed to tell his kind?” Gaff implored.

“Woe be unto the Elf.”

END


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