Read an Excerpt
By Nicholls, Stan
Orbit Copyright © 2012 Nicholls, Stan
All right reserved.
There was chaos.
All across the island, battles were raging between Jennesta’s loyalists and the Gateway Corps. Most of the dwarfs who inhabited the isle, and who had survived the initial clash, had fled to their boltholes or the upper slopes of the sacred volcanoes. Seashore and jungle resonated with the flare of magic and the ringing of blades.
The Wolverines were gathered in the strip of pebbly land between beach and tree-line, sheltering behind an outcrop of rock. They were still reeling at what Stryke and Coilla had told them.
Two of the band’s best scouts, Hystykk and Zoda, had been dispatched to discover Jennesta’s whereabouts. They returned crestfallen.
“She’s not where you last saw her, Captain,” Zoda confirmed. “There were too many of her troopers about for us to look much further afield.”
“So where the fuck is she?” Haskeer said.
Coilla shrugged. “Could be anywhere by now.”
“This island’s not so big,” Stryke told them. “We can find her.” As the effect Jennesta’s spell had on him wore off, it was being replaced by pure anger.
“Where’s she likely to have gone?” Pepperdyne asked.
Haskeer gave the human a venomous look. “If we knew that, pink face, we wouldn’t be flapping our gums here.”
“I mean, figure it out. It wasn’t as though she was actually winning the battle, was it? It was a draw at best. And it looks to me like that elf’s group holds the beach. So she’d maybe think twice before going for her fleet.”
“Makes sense,” Coilla said.
“Trust you to back him,” Haskeer muttered.
Coilla shot him a dagger look but kept quiet.
“So what does she do?” Pepperdyne went on.
“Goes inland,” Jup supplied.
“Not a lot of choice,” his mate Spurral added, lightly ribbing him.
Pepperdyne nodded. “Right. But is she going to tramp about in the jungle? I don’t think so. She’d make for something more practical.”
“The dwarfs’ village!” Wheam exclaimed.
The others had worked that out already, and he didn’t get the hurrah he expected.
“What do you think, Stryke?” Coilla asked.
“I think we’re wasting time,” he snapped, “when Thirzarr needs me.”
“Yeah. So, the village?”
He sighed. “As good a place as any, I s’pose.” To the rest he announced, “We’re moving out! We run into anybody, we cut ’em down!”
“Don’t we always?” Haskeer wondered.
“She won’t be alone,” Dallog warned, drawing another contemptuous look from Haskeer.
“I know,” Stryke said. “We can deal with it.”
“What about Jennesta herself?” Jup asked. “What happens if—” He saw Stryke’s expression. “—when we find her? How do we handle that?”
“I’ll think of something,” his captain returned gruffly, and without further word turned and set off at a pace.
The band fell in behind him.
Coilla slipped an arm around Pepperdyne’s waist as they walked. It drew looks.
“How bad was it back there?” he wanted to know.
“Pretty bad. I’ve never seen Stryke so… out of control.”
“He seems all right now.”
“Don’t kid yourself. Take my advice: steer clear of him. He’s just about bottling the fury.”
“Can’t blame him after what happened to his mate. I know how I’d feel if something like that happened to… somebody I care for.” He smiled at her.
Coilla returned it, then sobered. “It’s not just Thirzarr. He’s got Corb and Janch to think about too. His hatchlings,” she added by way of explanation. “And who knows what mayhem Jennesta might have wreaked in Ceragan. This is one pissed-off band, Jode.”
“How can I tell?”
“What’d you mean?”
“You’re orcs. Pissed-off seems to be the natural state.”
She grinned again, despite herself. “Not all the time.”
“Mind you, it was good that Wheam got pissed-off back there just when we needed it.”
“Sounds like he did well.”
“Yeah. Not that Haskeer believes it.”
They glanced at Wheam. He was jogging along next to Dallog. But Dallog seemed more interested in Pirrak, one of the other tyros from Ceragan, with whom he was engrossed in conversation.
“Looks like Dallog’s neglecting him,” Pepperdyne observed.
“He has to mentor all the newbies.”
“I’ve noticed he’s spent a lot of time with that one recently.”
“Maybe Pirrak needs some kind of guidance. The fresh intake are new to this, remember.”
“Been quite a baptism of fire for them, hasn’t it?”
“Yes. It’s a wonder we haven’t lost more of ’em, thank the Tetrad.”
“You’ve not heard any of us say that before? It’s our congress of gods. There are four of them. I’ll explain some time, if you’re interested.”
“I’d like to hear about it. And you… believe in these gods? You appeal to them?”
“Usually when somebody’s trying to part me from my head.”
Pepperdyne smiled. “I know that feeling. It was the same with my people.” He cast an eye over the trudging band. “I guess there’s a certain amount of appealing going on right now.”
“So how do your—Damn. Heads up.” He nodded.
Coilla followed his gaze and saw Standeven elbowing their way. She rolled her eyes.
Pepperdyne’s one-time master arrived sweating. “I need to talk to you,” he insisted to Coilla in an undertone.
He looked around, anxious not to be overheard. “The instrumentalities,” he mouthed.
Pepperdyne groaned. “Not this again.”
Standeven glared at him and turned indignant. “I only want to ask the Corporal here if they’re still safe.”
“What’s it to you?” Coilla said.
“A lot. As it should be to everybody here. Our only chance of getting home depends on—”
“I know. They’re safe. You’d have to kill Stryke to get ’em. Unlikely in your case.”
He ignored the jibe. “And has he mastered them yet? Has he worked out what’s wrong with them?”
She jabbed a thumb in Stryke’s direction. “Why don’t you ask him?”
Standeven looked to Stryke, forging ahead at the column’s prow. He saw the broadness of his back, the rippling muscles and, when he turned his head to scold those following, the murderous expression he wore. “I’ll… wait until he’s free.”
“He does have a couple of other things on his mind,” Pepperdyne informed him dryly.
“But they’re secure, right? The stars, they’re—”
“Enough. You’re getting obsessed with the things. Give it a rest.”
Standeven flushed redder. “There was a time,” he grated angrily, “when you wouldn’t have dared speak to me like that.”
“So you keep telling me. And I keep saying that time’s past. Live with it.”
Shaking with impotent fury, his old master fell back in the column, where he was given a wide berth.
“I think he’s going crazy,” Pepperdyne said, at least half seriously.
Coilla shook her head. “Don’t know about that. I do know the effect the stars can have.”
“Spending too long with ’em can make things a bit weird. We’ve seen it in the band.”
“You turned into an echo, or what?”
“Just explain, Coilla.”
“Later. It’s a long story. But the stars have the power to get a hold on some, make ’em act… well, a bit like Standeven.”
“What about Stryke? He’s with the things all the time.”
“Yeah, and that’s a worry. But like I said, it affects some, not all. He seems to handle it. Most of the time.”
“What I’m saying is, keep an eye on Standeven.”
“I usually do.”
They marched in silence after that, turning things over in their minds.
Stryke was leading the band along the upper lip of the beach, keeping the jungle to their right. Soon they would reach a line of sand dunes marking the point where they needed to turn inland, onto the path that headed toward the dwarfs’ settlement.
As dwarfs themselves, Jup and Spurral felt a natural sympathy with the natives, but their empathy was with Stryke. Marching four or five ranks to his rear, they found themselves eyeing him constantly.
“He looks in a state,” Spurral commented, “near frenzied. Is he going to hold it together?”
“Course he will. He’s tough. What beggars belief is how history’s repeating itself.”
“Me and the Gatherers.”
Jup nodded. “So I know how he feels.”
“He helped you get through that.”
“Yeah. I owe him.”
“Now you can repay. He needs your support. And maybe more down the road, depending on how this plays out.”
“There’s no going near him at the moment, the mood he’s in.”
“Well, you’ll just have to—”
“Wait! Look.” He pointed at the sand dune they were approaching.
A number of humans were swarming over it, their Peczan uniforms marking them as Jennesta’s followers. Several of her undead slaves were with them. Their movements were lumbering and jerky, and their deathly pallor was evident even at a distance. The looks of surprise on the troopers’ faces testified to this being an unexpected encounter rather than an ambush.
“Damn,” Spurral said. “Just what we needed.”
“Yes, it is,” Jup told her.
“More trouble’s what we need?” She drew her short-bladed sword.
“Better to be at the enemy’s throats than each other’s. It’ll bleed off the tension. ’Specially Stryke’s.”
As Jup spoke, Stryke rushed at the troopers, bellowing a war cry. The rest of the band took it up and thundered after him. All but Standeven, who hung back, looking fretful.
The two lines met in a bellowing roar and the clatter of steel.
Stryke tore into the human ranks like a hot cleaver through pig fat. A pair of troopers went down in a brace of heartbeats, and instantly he was engaging a third. He fought like a berserker, oblivious to whistling blades and lunging spears. His only aim was rending the flesh of anything in his way.
Coilla and Pepperdyne worked in unison, carving a path deep into the enemy’s ranks, until they ran into one of the undead. The process by which Jennesta magically created her zombie adherents endowed them with a strength and stamina most lacked in life. This one was an exceptional example, and must have been hulking even before he met his fate. Armed with what looked like a tree trunk, he took a hefty swipe that caught Pepperdyne off guard. The blow was glancing, but enough to bring him to his knees. A follow-up would have brained him, had Coilla not rushed in, sword swinging. She struck the zombie at its waist, cutting deep. Back on his feet, Pepperdyne rejoined the fray, adding his weight to the fight. Together they hacked their foe to pieces.
Jup and Spurral also fought in harmony. Given their height, this was as much necessity as choice. Employing a well-practised technique, Jup used his staff to crack kneecaps, toppling opponents and bringing them in range of Spurral’s blade.
Haskeer had no truck with anything like finesse. Having felled a trooper with a thrust to the man’s chest, he had his sword dashed from his hand by a stray blow. Menaced by a trio of advancing soldiers he swiftly hoisted the corpse and hurled it at them. They went down like a row of skittles. Snatching up his sword, Haskeer followed through.
The new recruits instinctively fought as a group, with Dallog marshalling them, and gave a good account of themselves. Even Wheam, his confidence growing, managed to inflict some damage.
The whole band, steeped in frustration, vented their anger with orcish fury. They stabbed, slashed and pounded at the enemy mercilessly, intent on nothing short of a massacre.
At length, Stryke wrenched his blade from the innards of the last human and stood panting as he surveyed the slaughter.
“Feeling better?” Coilla said.
He wiped blood from his face with the back of a hand. “Some.”
Jup arrived. “Casualties light,” he reported. “Dallog’s patching up those who need it.”
Stryke nodded. “Then let’s keep moving.” He set off.
They took the jungle path leading to the dwarfs’ village, alert to any further danger. The journey was uneventful until they were almost at the settlement, when they spotted columns of black smoke beginning to rise above the trees. Shortly after, they entered the clearing.
All but two or three of the huts were burning, and a dozen or so dead dwarfs were scattered about. Some of the band caught the briefest glimpse of movement in the jungle. It was judged to be natives fleeing to their hiding places. Coilla called out to them, but got no reply. The remaining huts were searched, along with the surrounding terrain, and proved deserted. Lookouts were posted, and the private with the best head for heights, Nep, was ordered to climb one of the taller trees to spy out the land. Stryke set half a dozen grunts on the more or less endless task of finding suitable wood to replenish their store of arrows. The rest of the band gathered around him.
“No Jennesta,” Haskeer said tightly, glaring at Pepperdyne. “So much for your brilliant plan.”
“It was a reasonable assumption,” the human protested.
“And nobody had a better idea,” Coilla added.
Haskeer switched his baleful stare to her. “That’s right, take his side. As usual.”
“It was the best idea,” she repeated deliberately.
“If you’ve got some kind of beef, Haskeer, let’s hear it.”
“I’m not keen on humans having a hand in how this band’s run.”
“I haven’t,” Pepperdyne told him. “I was just trying to help.”
“And a fat lot of good that turned out. We don’t need your help. So why don’t you—”
“Shut it,” Stryke warned, his tone ominous. “We’re all in this together, and I’ll have no bickering.”
“Now you’re taking his part,” Haskeer grumbled.
“I said shut… it. There’ll be no indiscipline in this band. And if anybody thinks otherwise they can step up now.”
Haskeer looked as though he just might, except they were interrupted by a shout from Nep at the tree top.
“What?” Stryke bellowed back.
“The ships! They’ve gone!”
“All but ours!”
Stryke signalled for him to come down.
“So Jennesta has left the island,” Jup said.
“And that other bunch too, by the sound of it,” Spurral put in.
“Shit,” Haskeer grated through clenched teeth.
“Now what do we do?” Coilla said.
The Gateway Corps ship had sailed beyond sight of the dwarfs’ island. But the Corps elf commander, Pelli Madayar, who had taken the wheel herself, was uncertain which course to set. For that, she looked to her goblin second-in-command, Weevan-Jirst. He was gazing at a plump, gleaming gem nestling in his palm.
“Anything?” Pelli asked.
“Take the wheel. I’ll try.”
They swapped places. She warmed the gem in her hand, then stared hard at it. Its swirling surface was cloudy.
“Is something wrong with it?” Weevan-Jirst asked in the rasping timbre peculiar to his race.
“There shouldn’t be, given the quality of its magic. I’ll check.”
Pelli was aware that although high in the Corps’ magical hierarchy, her deputy still had a lot to learn. “By comparing it with a set of instrumentalities we already know about,” she explained.
“Those held by the orc warband?”
She nodded. “You’re aware that each set of artefacts has its own unique signature; what some call its song. We know the tempo of the ones the Wolverines have. I’ll see if I can attune to them. One moment.” Face creased in concentration, she softly recited the necessary spell. At length she said, “There,” and showed him the gem.
Images had appeared on its façade. They were arcane, and continuously shifting, but to adepts their meaning was plain.
“The orcs’ instrumentalities,” Weevan-Jirst interpreted, “on the isle of dwarfs.”
“Yes. Which confirms that the fault doesn’t lie in our method of detection.”
“I see that. So why can’t we trace the artefacts Jennesta has?”
“Because I’m now certain that she’s done something unprecedented, or at least extremely rare. The instrumentalities she’s using are copies, presumably taken from the originals the orcs have. Their emanations are unlike those given off by the genuine articles, which is why we’re finding it difficult to track them.”
“Copies? That would be a remarkable achievement.”
“Oh, yes. There’s no doubting her extraordinary magical talent. Moreover, I believe she’s also tampered with the originals in some way, giving her a measure of control over them.”
“Which would explain the erratic way the Wolverines were world-hopping before arriving in this one.”
“Indeed it would. She’s toying with them.”
“But I’m puzzled.”
“Our mission is to retrieve the orcs’ instrumentalities, and we know where they are. So why have we left them behind on the island?”
“We now have not one, but two sets of instrumentalities in irresponsible hands. And Jennesta’s ability to duplicate them is potentially catastrophic. Imagine dozens, scores, hundreds of instrumentalities in circulation. The Corps could never control a situation like that.”
“It doesn’t bear thinking about,” Weevan-Jirst agreed gravely.
“We’ve two options. We can go back to the island to tackle the orcs again, and run the risk of losing Jennesta for ever. Or we concentrate on her, knowing we can find the orcs as long as they have the artefacts, which they’re unlikely to part with.”
“We don’t know where she is.”
“I think we can find out by recalibrating our detection methods on the basis that her instrumentalities are copies.”
“Is that possible?”
“In theory. Only it might take a little while. But there’s something else that could work to our advantage. Jennesta has Stryke’s mate, and we can almost certainly count on him pursuing her too. With luck, we’ll be able to bag both sets at the same time.”
“How will they know where she’s gone?”
“Don’t underestimate how tenacious a race the orcs are. I’d put a large wager on them working it out.”
The goblin looked doubtful. “Isn’t this deviating from our orders?”
“I have autonomy in the field, to a degree.”
“Yes,” he hissed, “to a degree. Are you going to consult higher authority?”
“Karrell Revers? No. At least, not yet.”
“Can I ask why not?”
“I have total respect for his judgement, but he’s not here.”
“You mean he’d likely order you to stick to our original mission.”
“Probably. And we’d lose precious time while the situation’s debated on homeworld.” She gave him a concerned look. “Of course, I appreciate that you might be unhappy with my plan. But I’ll take full responsibility for—”
“I’ll be glad to abide by any decision you make, Pelli. For the time being.”
She decided not to pursue that comment. “Thank you. Meantime, we have something else to attend to.” She looked along the deck. The bodies of three of their comrades were laid out, wrapped in bloody sheets. “Then we have a score to settle with Jennesta.”
There were dead on Jennesta’s ship too. Some walked and breathed, after a fashion. Others would never do either again.
Several of the latter were being pitched overboard by a party of the former.
The corpses being disposed of were dwarfs, broken and bloodied following Jennesta’s creative interrogation methods. Apart from mundane necessity, the fate of the discarded cadavers had the additional effect of chastening her followers. But although Jennesta embraced, indeed revelled in the appellation tyrant, she was coming to understand the value of tempering stick with carrot when it came to her subordinates’ loyalty. This took several forms. The promise of power and riches under her dominion was one way. Another was the dispensing of pleasure, her sorcery being capable of conferring sensations of wellbeing, even ecstasy, as readily as terror.
But there was a kind of follower for whom neither punishment nor bliss was the spur. These rare individuals shared her taste for cruelty. And Jennesta had found one. His name was Freiston. He was a young low-ranking officer in the Peczan military, one of those who had thrown in their lot with her in the hope of extravagant rewards. He was a human, so naturally she distrusted him. Not that she didn’t distrust all races, but she was especially suspicious of humans. After all, her father was one.
Freiston had caught her attention because of his skill as a torturer, and his passion for it, which had proved useful. On the strength of that she promoted him to her notional second-in-command.
Following the debacle on the island, they were in Jennesta’s cabin. She was seated, regally; he was required to stand. Also present was Stryke’s mate, Thirzarr, who lay insensible on a cot. She looked as though she was sleeping, but it was a state only Jennesta’s sorcery could rouse her from.
“Did you get what you want, ma’am?” Freiston asked.
She smiled. “My wants exceed anything you could imagine. But if you mean the information I needed to set our course, then yes.”
“If I may say so, my lady, it’s ironic.”
“That those dwarfs should have given their lives for something as mundane as a location.”
She gave him a withering look. “It’s hardly mundane to me. But it was a case of making them understand, rather than them trying to withhold what I wanted. Not that you’re complaining, surely? You obviously enjoyed it.”
“I’m ready to serve you in any way necessary, ma’am.”
“Perhaps you should have been a diplomat rather than a soldier.” He started to respond. She waved him silent. “We’ll be in a combat situation at landfall. I need my force in good order and well briefed on what they’ll be up against. You’ll see to it.”
“Ma’am. We’re going to be a little under strength in a couple of key areas due to a few of our people being left behind on the dwarfs’ island.”
“Do I look like someone who cares about that? If they were too slovenly to obey my evacuation order I don’t need them.”
“Yes, m’lady. Can I ask when we’ll reach our destination?”
“In about two days. What I seek turned out to be nearer than I suspected. So you’re going to be a busy little man, Freiston.” She rose. “Let’s set the wheels turning.” Glancing at Thirzarr’s recumbent form, she led him out of the cabin.
From the deck, the other four vessels in her flotilla could be seen, ploughing in her flagship’s wake. On the deck itself, one of Jennesta’s undead stood motionless over a dwarf’s body. She swept that way, Freiston in tow.
Approaching, she saw that the zombie was General Kapple Hacher. Or had been. He was staring at the cadaver. Freiston showed no emotion at seeing his one-time commanding officer so hideously reduced.
Jennesta was furious. “What are you doing, you dolt?” she raged. “You had your orders. Take that—” She jabbed a finger at the corpse. “—and cast it overboard.”
The drooling hulk that had been a great army’s general and governor of a Peczan province carried on staring.
“Do it!” Jennesta insisted, further incensed. “Obey me!”
Hacher lifted his gaze to her, but otherwise stayed motionless. Her patience exhausted, she continued haranguing, and took to cuffing him with a rings-encrusted fist, raising puffs of dust from the tatters of his decaying uniform. After a moment his eyes, hitherto glassy, flickered and showed something like sentience, and perhaps a hint of defiance.
Freiston’s hand went to his sword hilt.
“Do… as… you’re… told,” Jennesta commanded, fixing Hacher with a look of smouldering intensity.
The light died in his eyes and they returned to insensible. With a kind of rasping sigh he bent to the corpse. He lifted it with no sign of effort and, straightening, tossed it over the rail. There was a distant splash.
“Now get back to your duties,” Jennesta told him.
Hacher slowly turned and trudged away, heading for the prow and a group of fellow zombies hefting supplies.
Jennesta saw Freiston’s expression and answered his unspoken question. “Sometimes, when their original force of will was strong, subjects can be less compliant.” She indicated the party Hacher was joining. “They’re imperfect beings; far from the ideal I have in mind.”
“Can they be improved, ma’am?”
“Oh, yes. In the same way that a peasant using poor clay makes poor pots, this first batch has flaws that carried over from the material I was forced to use. But with the right subjects, and refinements I’ve made to the process, the next batch is going to be far superior. As you’ll soon see. But you have something on your mind, Freiston. What is it?”
“We have the orc’s female,” he replied hesitantly.
“Stryke’s mate, yes. What of it?”
“If he’s as pig-headed as you say, my lady, won’t his band be after us?”
“I’m counting on it.”
“Ah.” He knew better than to query her reasoning, but ventured another thought. “And the group that attacked us? Who were they?”
“They can only have been the Gateway Corps. I thought they were a myth, but it appears not.”
“Aren’t they another threat?”
“They’re meddlers. Self-appointed so-called guardians of the portals. There’ll be a reckoning for what they did today.”
Freiston had doubts about that, given that Jennesta had just had to retreat from them. But naturally he kept his opinion to himself.
“Neither orcs nor a ragbag of interfering elder races are going to stand in my way,” she went on. “There’s going to be a very different outcome the next time our paths cross.”
Stryke’s fury had subsided. Cold purpose took its place.
He set about getting things organised. As it was nearly dusk, the dwarfs’ remaining undamaged longhouses were commandeered and the surrounding area secured. A group was sent to the goblin ship the band had arrived in, to replenish its rations and to guard it. Scouting parties were dispatched to comb the island.
Having done as much as he could for the time being, Stryke sat down on the steps of one of the longhouses and fell to brooding. Everybody in the band knew better than to approach him. With one exception.
Jup came to him with a steaming bowl and a canteen. “Here.” He offered the food. Stryke barely looked at it, and said nothing. “You’ve got to eat,” the dwarf told him. “For Thirzarr. You’ll be no good famished.”
Stryke took the bowl. He stared at its contents. “What is it?”
Jup seated himself. “Lizard. The jungle’s full of ’em. That other stuff’s leaves and roots,” he added helpfully. “There’s fruit too, but I figured you need meat.”
Stryke began eating, without enthusiasm.
After a moment, Jup ventured, “About Thirzarr…” He ignored Stryke’s baleful expression and pushed on. “I’ll tell you what you told me when Spurral got taken. Your mate has a value to Jennesta. And you don’t damage something of value.”
“What value? Why should Jennesta give a damn about Thirzarr’s life?”
“Don’t know. It could be as simple as antagonising you. What’s important is that Jennesta kept Thirzarr alive; she didn’t leave her lying on the beach back there.”
“But the state she was in. Like one of the bitch’s damned undead.”
“Not quite. Jennesta threatened to make Thirzarr that way. But she didn’t do it. That’s more reason for hope, Stryke.”
“We don’t know she hasn’t. And it’s not just Thirzarr. There’s Corb and Janch. What value are they to her?”
“There’s no reason to think—”
“And Ceragan itself; what might she have done there?”
“Come to that, what if—”
“Stryke. Could she have made Ceragan more of a shit hole than Maras-Dantia?”
Jup was gratified when that drew a thin smile. “Where do we go from here?” Stryke said.
“Not sure. We just have to believe that a way’s going to open for us. But you know we’re with you, Stryke. The whole band. Whatever it takes.”
Stryke nodded and went on eating mechanically.
They sat in silence.
Not far away, just inside the jungle’s lip, Coilla and Pepperdyne were foraging.
He stooped and ripped up a handful of purplish leaves. “Do you think these are all right?”
Coilla looked, then sniffed the bouquet. She made a face. “I wouldn’t risk it unless you want to poison everybody.”
He tossed the clump away. “This is harder than I thought. Things seem more or less the same in this world as ours, but when you take a closer look…”
“Yes, there are differences in the small stuff. But think about how big some of the differences were in those other worlds we went to. We were lucky with this one.”
“Talking of which, you started to tell me how what we call our home world isn’t really your home world, despite you being born there. What the hell was that all about?”
“It’s not the real home of any of the elder races. As we were told it, it rightly belongs to your race.”
“You want to hear it now?”
“What else is there to do? Unless you’d prefer to—” He reached for her.
She wriggled free, laughing. “Whoa! Steady. All right. It’s complicated, and I don’t even know if it’s true, but—”
“It’s just a fairy story then.”
“The stories they tell would freeze your blood. No, we reckon what we heard’s probably true, but… who knows?”
“So spill it.” He sat, then patted the sward next to him and she sat too.
“All right.” She gathered her thoughts. “The story goes that the world we both come from was the humans’ world. All we knew was our land; what we called Maras-Dantia and your race called Centrasia. We thought Maras-Dantia belonged to all the elder races living there, and that humans came from outside much later and fucked everything up.” She saw the look he gave her. “No offence.”
He smiled. “None taken. So what was the truth?”
“There were humans in Maras-Dantia before the great influx, or at least a few. One of them was Tentarr Arngrim, who calls himself Serapheim.”
“Before the influx? You said he set you off on this mission. How old is this man?”
“Very, I guess. But he’s a sorcerer, so…” She shrugged. “Anyway, Serapheim’s mate was a sorceress called Vermegram. Whereas he’s human, she was… I don’t know. Something else. They had three offspring, all female. One was Jennesta. Then there was Adpar, who was part nyadd.”
“A kind of water sprite. Jennesta killed her.”
“The third sister’s Sanara, who must take after her father ’cos she looks human. She helped us out of a fix in Maras-Dantia.”
“What’s all this got to do with—”
“I’m getting to it. What we know about those early days—”
“What you think you know.”
“Yeah, right. Now shut up. Serapheim or Vermegram, or maybe both of ’em, found a way to move between worlds. It’s what led to the stars Serapheim made. Or discovered.” She waved a dismissive hand. “It’s all a bit vague. But their messing around opened… sort of cracks between worlds. Holes, if you like. And elder races fell through from their worlds to Maras-Dantia.”
“Yeah. Which set us on the road to servitude, and wound up making us the backbone of Jennesta’s army. But that’s another story. The one I’m telling you ended with Serapheim and Vermegram falling out… somehow. Some say they turned from lovers to enemies, and there was a conflict. I don’t know anything about that. Vermegram’s reckoned to be dead, though nobody’s sure how or when.”
“Hang on. You said she wasn’t human.”
Coilla nodded. “You only had to look at Jennesta and Adpar to see that.”
“How could she be anything but human if she was in Maras-Dantia before the elder races arrived?”
“Fucked if I know, Jode. I’m not an oracle.”
“What you said about your people going into servitude; how did—”
“Enough questions. Some other time, all right?”
He was taken aback by the sharpness of her reply, but shrugged and said, “Sure.”
She changed the subject and softened her tone. “It’s getting cooler.”
He slipped an arm round her. She moved closer and laid her head against his shoulder.
There were shouts from the clearing.
“Damn!” Pepperdyne complained. “Every time we get a quiet moment together…”
“Come on,” Coilla said, scrambling to her feet.
They headed back to the village.
One of the scouting parties had returned. They had four human prisoners with them, their hands tied behind their backs. Looking terrified, their uniforms dusty and tattered, they were forced to their knees. The band gathered around them, Stryke to the fore.
Orbon, who led the scouts, reported. “Found these stragglers further along the beach, Captain. There was no fight left in ’em.”
Grim-faced, Stryke approached and walked slowly along the line of crouching captives. All of them avoided his gaze and kept their heads down.
“I’ve just one question,” he told them. “Where has your mistress gone?”
A couple of the prisoners glanced nervously at each other, but none of them spoke.
“I’ll make myself plain,” he said, walking back and forth in front of them, his unsheathed sword in his hand. “I get an answer or you get dead.” He went to the first in line. “You! Where’s Jennesta?”
The man looked up. He was trembling. “We… That isn’t… the sort of thing she’d… tell the likes of us.”
“Wrong answer,” Stryke told him. He drove his sword into the prisoner’s chest. The man toppled, and lay twitching before he was still.
Stryke moved on to the next human. “Where’s Jennesta?” he repeated, his gory blade pressed to the captive’s throat.
This one was more resolute, or perhaps it was bravado. “You can go and fuck yourself, freak,” he grated, and made to spit in Stryke’s face.
He didn’t have the chance. Stryke brought back his sword and swung it hard. The blow was savage enough to part the man from his head, which bounced a couple of times before rolling to a halt at Standeven’s feet. His face drained of all colour and he hastily stepped back, looking queasy. The decapitated torso sat for a moment, gushing, before it fell.
The next man in line was older than the others and wore an officer’s uniform. He was splattered with his dead comrade’s blood.
Stryke turned to him. “Has that loosened your tongue? Or do I do the same to you?”
The man said nothing, though it was as likely from fear as courage. Stryke drew back his blade again.
“Wait!” Pepperdyne yelled, pushing his way forward. “What the hell are you doing, Stryke?”
“This is band business. Stay out of it.”
“Since when was it your business to slaughter unarmed prisoners?”
“You’ve a lot to learn about orcs, human.”
“I thought I’d already learned that you were honourable.”
That seemed to give Stryke pause for thought, but he didn’t lower his sword. “I need to know where the bitch’s taken Thirzarr.”
“You’ll not get anything out of dead men.”
“Force is all their kind understands.”
“My kind, you mean. And isn’t that what humans say about orcs?”
“We do understand it,” Haskeer protested.
Pepperdyne jabbed a thumb at the dead prisoners. “Not working too well here, is it?” He turned back to Stryke. “Let me try. Come on. I’m one of their kind; maybe they’ll open up to me.”
“Why don’t you keep your snout out of this?” Haskeer said. “You’re not in this band.”
“He’s proved himself,” Coilla told him. “I say we give it a chance.”
“Here we go again.”
“And what’s that mean?”
“You’re backing him. Again. Seems to me you should be siding with your own, not outsiders.”
“We’re outsiders, you idiot! Everybody shits on us, curses us, hates us. You might think of that when you’re busy judging. Jode’s suffered as much as we have, in his way.”
“You’re talking about a human. They’re more shitters than shat upon, I reckon.”
Jup burst out laughing. “Sorry.” He tried to sober himself. “But… shitters? Shat upon? You outdo yourself, Haskeer.” He started laughing again. Several of the privates joined in. He made a better fist of composing himself. “Coilla’s right. Maybe Jode could make ’em talk.”
Haskeer was seething now. “You too, eh?”
“What have we got to lose? If it doesn’t work we can move on to cutting off a few of their fingers or toes or…” He glanced at the pair of alarmed prisoners. “Failing that, Stryke can finish ’em.”
“What is it you want, Stryke?” Pepperdyne asked. “Information or revenge?”
“There’s a lot to be said for revenge.”
“My people have a saying: ‘If you go out for revenge, build two pyres.’ ”
“I’ll build a hundred,” Stryke replied coldly, “a thousand…”
“Make the biggest for Jennesta. But you won’t learn where to find her from dead men.”
Stryke slowly lowered his sword. “Try. But be quick.”
“Thanks. Might be better if you all left us. I think you’re making the prisoners nervous.”
Stryke snapped an order and everyone retreated to the other end of the clearing, Haskeer mumbling unhappily as they went. Pepperdyne crouched by the two remaining humans and began some earnest talking.
The band settled down to wait.
Stretched out on the compacted earth of the clearing, Haskeer said to no one in particular, “How do we know he ain’t plotting with ’em?”
“What?” Coilla said. “When did you swap your brains for horse shit? Jode’s trying to help.”
“Yeah, we know how helpful humans can be.” He looked sharply at Standeven, sitting nearby, making him fidget uneasily.
“You’re full of it, Haskeer. You should wise up about who our friends are.”
“Friends, Coilla? Are you trying to tell me that—”
“You’re bruising my ears!” Stryke declared. “Give it a rest, you two.”
Haskeer and Coilla fell into aggrieved silence.
The band quietened down too. Pepperdyne carried on talking with the prisoners.
The orcs were just starting to get restless again when one of the perimeter sentries, Gant, called out to them. The second scouting party had returned.
It was led by Dallog, who had the tyro Pirrak at his side. Wheam walked alone, further back. But what caught everyone’s attention was who the scouts had with them; a party of dwarfs, three of them youngsters.
Spurral stood. “Isn’t that Kalgeck? And those kids who got us the map?” She ran towards them, Jup and some of the others close behind.
Kalgeck, with whom she had suffered captivity by the Gatherers, rushed forward to meet her and they embraced. The children, Heeg, Retlarg and Grunnsa, gathered round too.
“Am I glad to see you,” she told them, speaking in Mutual, the universal tongue. “Are you all right?”
Kalgeck nodded. “We managed to get to one of our hideaways. It was close though. We ran into some human soldiers, like those over there.” He pointed at the captives with Pepperdyne. “They would have killed us, except some of that other bunch with all the different races came along. Who were they?”
“We don’t know,” Spurral admitted. “Not exactly.”
“Anyway,” Kalgeck went on, “they protected us. They sort of sprayed fire at the soldiers and scared them off. Then they told us to run and hide.”
Coilla looked thoughtful. “Interesting.”
“Heads up,” Jup said. “Here comes Jode.”
Pepperdyne arrived, clutching a small piece of parchment.
“Luck?” Stryke asked.
“Some. It didn’t take much for them to see the light. They know roughly where Jennesta’s gone, but not why. One of them drew this.” He handed Stryke the paper.
It was a roughly drawn map, showing a cluster of islands, with one island, set apart from the rest, bearing a cross. The only other thing was a rudimentary set of arrows indicating the compass points.
“So it’s east of here,” Stryke said. “But how far?”
“They weren’t sure, but thought it was a couple of days’ voyage. So not too far.”
“Why not compare it with the map we’ve already got?” Spurral suggested. “The one these kids found for us.”
“Just about to,” Stryke told her. He fished it out of a pocket.
They unfolded it, laid it on the ground and compared the two.
“There,” Pepperdyne said, pointing to one corner.
“Yeah,” Stryke agreed. “They match, more or less.”
“We know about that island,” Retlarg announced.
“Do you?” Coilla asked. “How come?” All three children started to clamour. She held up a hand to still them. “Kalgeck? You know anything about this?”
“Yes. A couple of the elders were with us for a time when we were hiding. We heard them talking about it.”
“What did they say?”
“The humans, those soldiers, they were trying to find out where the island was. They took away some of our tribe to make them tell.”
“What’s so special about it?”
“It’s where your kind live.”
“What do you mean?”
“He means orcs,” Spurral said.
The youngsters all nodded vigorously and chorused agreement.
Pepperdyne, who had picked up enough Mutual to have a sense of what was being said, looked taken aback. “There are orcs in this world?”
“Why not?” Coilla reckoned. “There seem to be plenty of races here, just like in Maras-Dantia.”
“This is all about Jennesta’s scheme to create a slave orc army, isn’t it?” Jup put in.
“Orcs wouldn’t let her,” Coilla declared.
“Unless they’re a bunch of pussies like that lot in Acurial,” Haskeer contributed.
“How likely is that? They’d wipe the floor with her.”
“Yeah? With her magic—”
“We’re wasting time,” Stryke said. “We’ve got a destination. Let’s get to it.”
Pepperdyne indicated the prisoners. “What about them?”
“We’ll leave ’em to fend for themselves.”
“How’d you feel about that, Kalgeck?” Spurral wanted to know.
“There are parts of the island that are deserted. They can go there. We won’t interfere with them if they leave us alone.”
“Fair enough,” Stryke said. “Now let’s get to the ship.”
Rather than wait for dawn, Stryke insisted they set sail that evening. There was a crimson sunset as they upped anchor and moved away from the island, promising a torrid following day.
So it proved. Even at dawn it was hot, though a constant, moderate wind gave some relief and kept the sails full. The cabins and cargo holds were stifling, and most of the band preferred the relative comfort of the deck. In scattered pairs and groups, the main topic of whispered conversations was Stryke’s treatment of the prisoners. Some backed him, others had doubts. Stryke himself spent most of his time alone at the prow, as though willing the ship onward.
Pepperdyne was amidships, at the wheel. As an islander born and bred, it would normally have been a pleasure, had not Standeven been plaguing him.
“You saw what he did to those soldiers. Didn’t that alarm you?”
“Stryke did what he felt he had to do,” Pepperdyne replied, his response measured. “I can’t say I liked it, but—”
“It was the act of a savage.”
“I’d take what you’re saying more seriously if you didn’t have a cloud over you about that dead orc back in Acurial.”
“How many times do I have to tell you—”
“Those two Stryke killed were human beings,” Standeven persisted. “Our kind.”
“And not just a lowly orc, eh?”
“Forget that! My point is that Stryke’s the one with the instrumentalities.”
“Here we go again.”
“They’re our only way home.”
“And there’s no way you’re getting them.”
“That’s not it. I’m saying is he the best one to be in charge of them?”
Pepperdyne laughed. “It should be you, is that it?”
“No! But he’s unstable. He showed that yesterday.”
“Maybe he is, maybe he isn’t. But he’s what we’ve got, whether you like it or not. No way is he going to give them up.”
“Of course he isn’t. But I’m thinking that if we spoke to him, reasoned with him, maybe we could get him to take us back home before we get dragged deeper into this madness.”
“You say he’s unstable then you come up with an idea like that. It’s not going to happen, Standeven. Do you really expect him to break off searching for his mate to ferry us home? Not to mention how erratic the stars have been. How could he be sure of getting us home? Or of getting himself back here?”
“So you’re admitting he can’t control them.”
“I’m not sure anybody could. Anyway, I’m not inclined to run out on the band. Not now, when they’re trying to find Thirzarr.”
Standeven was puzzled. “Why?”
“It’s called loyalty. A notion you’re not familiar with.”
“What about loyalty to Humanity? To me.”
“It has to be earned. The band’s done that. You haven’t.”
“Your trust in these orcs is misplaced. This… relationship or whatever it is you’re having with Coilla; they’re laughing behind your back about it, you know. Those who don’t hate you for it, that is. Why don’t you stick with your own?”
“I think you just answered that question yourself. For all of what you call their savagery these beings aren’t devious like you and most of our race. Whatever you might think, they don’t hide their true opinions behind mealy-mouthed words. They speak plain and act out what they feel. I quite like that.”
“And that’s your excuse for your disgusting union with one of them, is it?”
“I don’t have to explain myself to you or anybody else. And I don’t have to listen to this shit. Now clear off.”
“Since when did you get to give orders?”
“I’m the skipper as far as this vessel’s concerned, and that makes my word law.” Pepperdyne gave his erstwhile master a flinty look. “And if that isn’t enough for you, I can back it with this.” He took a hand off the wheel and made a fist of it.
Standeven blanched, then, mumbling curses, turned and stamped off. Coilla was coming up the stairs to the wheel as he went down, and he pushed past her wordlessly.
“What was that about, Jode?” she asked.
“Still keen on the stars, eh?”
“He says he isn’t.”
“He said something else.”
“So stop creasing your brow and spit it out.”
“What do you reckon the rest of the band think about… us?”
“Do they know?”
“Standeven said they did, and that they’re not happy about it.”
“Nobody’s said anything to me. Well, apart from Haskeer. But he’s always moaning about something, and humans aren’t his favourite race.”
“Maybe we should be a little more discreet.”
“Why? What the fuck’s it got to do with them?”
“Well, it’s not as though our situation’s that normal, is it?” He saw her expression and started rowing back. “Not that there’s anything abnormal about it, of course. I mean—”
“All right, you can stop digging now. It’s rare, yes, but that’s no reason for anybody to get sniffy about it. Anyway, Standeven’s probably just trying to vex you. Don’t let him get under your skin.”
“Expect you’re right. But I’d be happier if—”
“Hold it. Here comes Wheam.”
“Damn it. It’s busier than a town square on market day up here.”
Excerpted from Orcs: Inferno by Nicholls, Stan Copyright © 2012 by Nicholls, Stan. Excerpted by permission.
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