October 6th Contest Round
|“I’ll never understand why they burn everything.”
Danny glanced over at Oberon, a small smirk stretched across her lips. “Do you ever get tired of saying that?”
The mocking tone in her voice snapped the man from his thoughts. “What?”
“Why they burn everything. You literally say it every time we get sent to one of these.”
Oberon turned his gaze back to the town, shrugging his shoulders. “It doesn’t make any sense.” He stretched his arm out, as if presenting the town like a gift. “Look how many buildings are on fire. You can’t tell me every one of those was looted properly before being torched.”
Danny nudged her horse forward to pull alongside her friend. “They’re Orke, Lilly. Thinking isn’t one of their strong suits.”
Oberon snorted. “Thinking? You give them too much credit. Come on, let’s just hope they left someone alive to interrogate.”
The pair rode down the hillside in comfortable silence, each in their own thoughts. Days like this one had become routine. Several years ago the ironically named War Infinite had somehow reached a stalemate and major skirmishes had stopped. But a stalemate didn’t mean truce, and the border towns quickly became the focus of the two warring Realms. It seemed every day another town was changing loyalties depending on which army was marching towards it. So Oberon and Danny, along with the rest of their companions, had been charged with investigating any claims of treason.
As they reached the edge of town, their horses instinctively slowed, years of training teaching them to be cautious. Oberon and Danny remained relaxed in their saddles. A small group emerged from the smoke, surrounding the pair. They stood about four feet in height, lean muscled, eyes darting about. They held crude wicked looking scythes at the ready.
Oberon couldn’t hide his smile as Danny sighed aloud. “Redcaps.”
Most races understandably feared Redcaps, as they were prone to attack and kill anything without provocation. But not Oberon. He had always found them amusing in appearance. Redcaps earned their name by dipping their caps in the blood of their victims, the fresher the better. It was a terrifying thought, but like now, here they stood before him, blood dripping and running down their faces as though they were nursing great vulgar head wounds.
Danny spoke in Mor’kei, the common language used by the Orke races. “Who’s in charge and where do we find him?”
The Recaps shuffled on their feet, not sure what to make of these two. Danny snapped her fingers. “Let’s go! Who is in charge of this campaign?”
One Redcap stepped forward. “Grolbach Hammerblow led us to victory.” He turned and pointed into the smoke. “Follow the road around. His people celebrate in the Raven’s Wing”.
Danny turned to look at Oberon. “Do we know Hammerblow?”
Oberon simply shrugged. “Sounds like a dwarf’s name. Sounds like every fucking dwarf’s name.”
“One last thing.” Danny pointed at the group. “Gather up whoever you can find and put these fires out. Now.”
The Redcap puffed out his chest. “Nah, let it burn.”
Danny stared at him for several seconds. She leaned down while rolling up her left sleeve, exposing a dark intricate tattoo wrapping itself from her wrist up the arm before disappearing under the fabric. “Should I get down so we can discuss it further?”
The other Redcaps had immediately scattered into the smoke, leaving their lone brother to face her. “No, no need for that.” He stammered, raising his hands and slowly stepping backwards. “We’ll get on it right away.” He quickly turned and followed after his brothers.
Oberon rode past Danny as she fixed her sleeve. “You enjoy that too much.”
Danny laughed and nudged her horse to follow. “That's not possible.”
The Raven’s Wing was a large tavern that had, at least for the moment, survived the flames. There were three sturdy small horses tethered out front made smaller by the one oversized horse next to them. It stood around six feet at the shoulder, heavily muscled and armored. Raucous laughter and loud voices drifted from inside.
The pair dismounted but didn’t bother to tie up their mounts. Their horses wouldn’t stray. Oberon stepped over to the large horse, admiring it. “The one thing orcs get right.” He reached out and rubbed the small portion of neck not covered by armor. Contrary to its nature, the horse raised its head and allowed Oberon to rub more.
Danny stood by the steps watching. “Your relationship with animals is unnatural. That thing would bite my hand off if I tried to touch it.”
Oberon gave the horse a healthy smack on its armored chest and joined Danny on the steps. “He’d bite your hand off because he knows where its been and doesn’t want you touching him with it.”
Danny flashed him the back of her right hand, index and middle fingers pressed together and extended while heading towards the entrance.
Oberon chuckled, “That was uncalled for,” and followed behind her.
Inside, the tavern was in complete chaos. Several tables were overturned with chairs scattered about. Dwarves and orcs sat at other tables, drinking and playing various games of strength. The area behind the bar was completely destroyed, smashed shelves holding the remnants of shattered bottles.
A bellow erupted from within the chaos and everyone went quiet. “We have guests, men.” A thickset dwarf emerged from the crowd, a head taller than any of the other dwarves walking with the ease of command. He wore armor of polished stone, plated and elegant with carved runes. The flagon he held looked small in his meaty hand.
“Are you Hammerblow?” Oberon pointed to Danny, “We are…”
The dwarf raised his hand to silence him. “It’s Hammer’sBlow. Lord of the Ki’hailan Hills, Commander of the Seventeenth Brigade and loyal subject to Una, Queen of Twilight.” He pulled a chair and sat facing them. “I know what you are and why you are here," he paused to drink deep, "and don’t give a shit who you are.” This last statement caused an uproar of laughter from the company of dwarves and orcs.
Oberon opened his mouth to reply when a small cry and movement drew his attention to the stairs leading to the second level. An orc was heading up, dragging a small form beside him which squealed in pain. Long blonde hair fell over a flash of blue fabric. He suddenly went rigid and his breath caught in his chest as a long forgotten memory triggered, consuming him entirely.
“Don’t leave, Jamie, please.” She stood pleading with him, her unkempt golden hair spilling over her blue sleeping gown. He hadn’t realized he’d woken her as he snuck out the front door. She’d followed him outside to confront him.
The boy knelt and placed his hand lovingly on his sister’s cheek. “Go back to bed, Caitlin. I’ll only be gone for a little while,” he lied. “there are things I must do before tomorrow.”
“Father will be mad if you leave.” She reached up and squeezed his hand. “You know what that means.”
He pulled his hand away. “Don’t worry. I’ll be back before you know it.”
He let his eyes unfocus as he looked at her. “Yeah, I promise. Now you have to promise me something. If I am running late, you can’t tell anyone you knew. Father might get mad at you too. Promise me.”
Her eyes grew large and filled with tears. “I promise,” she whispered and hugged him tight.
He hugged her back, fiercely. “Now go back to bed before both of us get caught.” He watched as his sister snuck back inside, quietly closing the door behind her. With a sigh he slowly stood, turned and walked into the night.
As quickly as it had come, the memory slipped away. Without thought, Oberon ran to catch up with the orc. “Release her.”
The orc turned and stared, his expression switching from amusement to annoyance.
Below, Danny stepped toward’s Grolbach. “That’s a human,” she exclaimed pointing up the stairs, “what is a human doing here?”
Grolbach shrugged. “I've no clue, she was here already. I’d recommend asking the owner, but...I already took his head.”
Although it was rare, humans sometimes found their way into the Realms. There were plenty of doorways that could be discovered but most often, a human was lead astray, purposely brought into the Realms to be enslaved.
Grolbach turned so he could watch this new entertainment unfold. “Your friend, he is also human. Is that why he's so interested in such a small thing?”
Danny stared up at Oberon crossing her arms. “I really don’t know. This is a first.”
Oberon stepped up onto the landing. “I said, let her go.”
The orc raised his hand, lifting the girl off her feet to dangle and thrash. “She is mine, I won her fairly.” He smiled but it didn’t reach his eyes. “I’ve never had a human. Go find your own plaything.”
“I will not repeat myself, orc.”
Grolbach’s voice boomed from below, “I don’t know if you can win this one, Darvosh. At least not with your hands full.” A chuckle rose from the enthralled crowd.
The orc glanced quickly down at his commander. He turned his head back to Oberon and shrugged, “Okay.” He flung the child out over the railing. Everything went quiet except the screaming child. Oberon closed his eyes and waited, listening. The scream was suddenly cut short, the sound of flesh hitting wood, the soft crack of bone. He was all too familiar with the finality of those sounds. She was gone.
Darvosh was unsheathing his sword when Oberon stepped forward without a sound. He suddenly dropped and pivoted, sweeping with his leg. Unprepared, the move swept the orc's feet from under him, pitching the orke onto his face. Oberon allowed the momentum of the spin to pull him back to his feet, drawing his blade as he rose. Coming to a stop facing the prone orc, he drove his sword down just as Darvosh turned to look up. The blade pierced the Darvosh’s temple, pushing through and pinning head to floor. The body convulsed twice then went still. Oberon pulled and the blade easily slipped free.
Danny watched a moment longer before turning and calling out, “I’ll be outside when you’re done having fun.”
Everyone's eyes followed in stunned silence as she casually strode out.
Oberon began descending the stairs. He did not sheathe his blade. When he spoke, the words came out lifeless, void of emotion. “I am Oberon Lilly, Judgment of the ShadowGuard, Mistwalker to the Guild Arcana...” He stepped off and turned to face the Seventeenth Brigade. “...I am subject to Una, Queen of Twilight...” He slowly walked towards Grolbach and his men. His last words came out as a whisper, as if speaking to himself.
“...I am unleashed.”
Grolbach, stood up, sweat beading across his thick brow. “Easy now. We’re all on the same side.” He reached behind him and someone handed him a large war hammer. “Go get your friend and ask your questions.”
Oberon kept advancing.
“Don’t be stupid! The numbers are against you. You can't win here.”
Oberon raised his sword. “And that's why you already lost.”
With speed surprising for a dwarf, Grolbach lunged forward, swinging his hammer overhead and bringing it down to crush the man's chest. Unfortunately for him, Oberon was already sidestepping, the large hammer harmlessly smashing down into the space he'd just occupied. The ShadowGuard's blade expertly found the sliver of flesh between the armor's shoulder and neck plating. Oberon pushed the blade down to the hilt then as quickly drew it out. The Commander of the Seventeenth Brigade died as a surprised exhale escaped his lips.
A dwarf standing close dropped his axe, raising his hands before him in submission. Others quickly followed. The first dwarf slowly stepped forward looking at his fellow soldiers before turning back to face Oberon. “Grolbach is dead, we are yours to command.” An uneasy shuffling passed through the group.
Oberon looked down at the pool of blood spreading around his feet. When he looked back up, his smile held no warmth. “What need do I have for the dead?”
Outside, Danny sat quietly on the steps, only half listening to the massacre taking place inside. Death didn’t bother her, not after so many years of killing in the name of her Queen. But she was worried about Lilly. She’d never seen him act out like that before, not even for a human. She felt a warmth spread across her back causing her to stand and turn.
Oberon silently brushed past her as the fire he’d lit quickly spread. Danny turned and watched as her friend mounted his horse. “Really,” she questioned, motioned behind her at the now raging flames.
Oberon watched as the fire crept up the wooden columns, engulfing the second floor. “Let it burn.”
Danny shrugged and called to her horse while secretly watching Oberon slowly ride back the way they’d come. She’d have to keep an eye on him and ask her questions when the time was right.
Oberon knew Danny was watching. He could feel her eyes on his back. He understood her concern. It was the same one he had. Not for the first time, Oberon Lilly found himself questioning who and what he was.