I didn’t hesitate to follow Will’s orders and ducked. Huge fangs snapped shut right where my head had been. I was proud for a moment of the bit of “team cohesion” I had displayed, but then the black maw came down once more.
I dove out of the way, then leapt up onto the beast’s lowered neck. It was huge and furry, and most definitely a nightmare, but beyond that, we had no clue what it was.
I scampered up onto the proportionally tiny head, hanging onto a horn for dear life. From this vantage point I could see the rest of my team working their chaotic magic: Gwen firing arrows into the thing’s chest (not penetrating deep enough to hit anything vital, unfortunately); Will trying to distract it by hacking at the tail, and Richard poised to throw his spear at the face.
Without hesitating, I stabbed my knife into the creature’s eye. It howled with furious passion and thrashed like a bag of cats, throwing me off its head. Rich threw his spear with admirable accuracy, taking out the other eye despite the fit of rage I had induced.
“Is that enough to kill it?” I panted.
“It had better be!” Rich responded. “I can’t just pull another spear out of my-”
The flailing bum of the now-blind monster came crashing down, pinning Richard and myself underneath it. I couldn’t move my arms or upper body, but my legs were free from the knee down, so I kicked the thing’s furry rump with my heels as hard as I could. This did absolutely nothing.
The beast let out a furious roar. I was caught between the shaking of the ground and the nightmare’s quivering body, which was by far the strangest sensation I have ever experienced.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t breathe beneath the crushing weight of the beast, so I was very grateful for the gift of fresh air that came moments later when the creature dissolved into loose shadow.
Will retrieved our weapons as Rich and I gasped for breath.
“How did….?” I asked, sitting up.
“Will took out one of the legs, so I shot few arrows in the maw while it was howling in pain.” Gwen answered, picking up her own scattered arrows. I caught my knife as it was tossed to me.
We assessed our injuries. Nothing serious, just a few cuts and bruises. We’d been encountering bigger, stronger nightmares often since we’d begun scouring the mountains on the Faerie Queen’s quest. The task itself was rather boring (and so far, fruitless) but the danger kept us on our toes.
It also gave me the chance to become as familiar with my friends as they already were with each other. Everyone has their quirks, good or bad. Richard snored in his sleep. Gwen could whistle even the most complex songs. Will’s a lousy cook, but didn’t mind digging the latrines every time we pitched camp. Several weeks of nothing but the same three people and barren rock-land as far as the eye can see is an excellent opportunity for team bonding!
But recently, it wasn’t all that barren. We’d come across a thick stretch of forest. We assumed it was the work of Forest Orcs, but I hadn’t seen a single soul except those with whom I was traveling.
“On the bright side, a nightmare if that magnitude would have cleared out any competition in the area.” said Will, heading toward the carriage the faeries had provided us. “We should be safe to set up camp and rest for the-”
A low growl pierced the air. We all turned in the direction from which it came. It seemed to be some way off still. Then another growl, and another, each a good deal closer than the other. The thing must be moving pretty fast. We unsheathed our weapons again.
“You’ve got to be kidding me, Kaiylan!” I looked at my friends, but they looked just as confused as me.
“It was Matik’s job to memorize the map!” Another voice, higher than the other, though the growling tone was still present. They were approaching quickly.
“We can argue the blame later,” said a third. “Do we at least know the way back?”
“I think I-wait, lanterns?” Voice Two had noticed us. “Guys, I think we found it!” We raised our weapons, not knowing what to expect.
Three blurs of color shot from the forest. I hardly registered them pounce before I was on my back, pinned to the ground. Razor sharp fangs reared back for the kill-
And then stopped. A confused female face looked down at me quizzically.
“You’re not an imp.” said the owner of Voice Two. She was a year or two younger than me, but definitely not human. My thunderous heartbeat slowed with realization that she wouldn’t eat me. Probably.
“Humans?” asked one of the others. I shifted my head to see Will and Richard in situations similar to mine. I couldn’t see Gwen.
“No, faeries.” Richard deadpanned. “Could you let me up, kid? You’re crushing my wing.”
The girl pushed herself off me and helped me to my feet. Her friends did likewise.
Once I saw the full profile, I could see they were Mountain orcs.
Though humanoid in size and shape, and quite intelligent, Mountain orcs were an inherently feral race. Their bodies were modified for both upright walking and quadrupedal running, with limbs that faintly resembled those of a canine or big cat. I knew the hair of their arms and legs and even backs could stiffen into sharp quills if the orc sensed danger.
Fangs protruded from their lower lips, and all three had luminous yellow eyes, but otherwise their faces could have been human. The other orcs, both of them boys, looked about the same age as the girl…around thirteen or fourteen. All three were armed to the teeth, with spears sheathed across their backs, belts heavy with knives, and much more, I was sure, that I could not see.
There was an awkward silence.
“So, uh…” I cleared my throat. “You come here often?”
The orcs laughed loudly. We went along with it.
“Was that supposed to be a joke?” Will whispered out the corner of his mouth. I shrugged.
“Allow me to introduce ourselves,” said the girl. “I’m Kaiylan, and this is Lex, and Matik.” Will introduced the four of us as well.
“So what are you doing here, anyway? asked Lex. “The guards the Warriors send are usually older.”
“You’re not exactly elders yourself.” said Richard.
“Well said.” We all jumped at the sound of a new voice. Leaning in the shadows of a tree was an orc a year or two older than me. The orc kids paled.
“What on earth could the three of you be doing all the way out here?” he asked in a mock-concern voice. “I know you’re not big party people, but this a bit extreme, don’t you think?”
“Just spit it out, Kevik.” Lex said.
“Your parents noticed you were missing. It wasn’t a big deal, really. But then tracking you down took so long. And what was that you said just a moment ago about the imp camp?”
The three were silent. What did we just walk into?
Kevik whistled. “You are in astronomically big trouble.”
Will cleared his throat. In the blink of an eye, the older orc had spun and was pointing a strange contraption, sort of like Gwen’s bow, at us.
“Whoa there, orc-man!” Richard put his hands up defensively.
“Humans?” He lowered his weapon. “I thought all the guards were on duty tonight?”
Will quickly outlined our business in the mountains.
Kevik reddened and quickly slung his weapon over his shoulder again. “I apologize for the ill greeting you’ve received here so far-”
“Ill? We were-” began Kaiylan indignantly. The older orc silenced her with a look. Then he continued;
“You may not be aware, but tonight we celebrate the customary Lunar Festival. We don’t have much, but we would be honored to share it. And I’m sure our priest would be very interested to hear about your task. The return of the sun would be a miracle for all of us, and I’m sure he’d want to help in any way possible.”
“Oh, um, thank you.” Will stammered. The hospitality was rather sudden. “Thank you very much.”
“If you want we can take the horses.” I said, motioning to the four steeds harnessed to the carriage. “It would be faster.”
Disbelieving excitement dawned on the young orc’s faces. I decided I liked these kids.
“CAN I DRIVE IT?!?” Kaiylan practically screamed.
“Uh…” I doubted she had the slightest inkling of what to do. She just looked so excited, though… “Sure.”
I don’t think the orcs had even seen a horse before, much less ridden one. Their reactions were pretty amusing: Matik was terrified after Rich’s horse brayed in his face, Lex was trying to figure out how they worked, and Kaiylan was practically jumping up and down in the saddle like this was the coolest thing since faerie lanterns.
Kevik insisted on leading the way back to camp so the other orcs would know the group was peaceful. Unfortunately, he had never ridden a horse before, and I think Gwen-seated behind him-was having a rough go of it.
Not as rough as I was though.
“No, no, Kaiylan, don’t pull that-”
We were delayed a few minutes, because re-mounting a horse is difficult when a thirteen-year old girl has figured out how to make it spin in circles.
In the meantime, Gwen finally got to ask Kevik the question that had been gnawing at her.
“What is this?” she said.
“You mean the crossbow?” he said.
“Yeah, if that’s what it’s called” she said,
“It’s a crossbow.”
“That’s redundant.” said Lex.
“You’re crushing my rib cage, Matik.” said Will. Even though we weren’t moving, the kid was holding on for dear life. Though with Kaiylan all the over the place, I couldn’t really blame him.
“You’re just jealous, Lex.” Kevik retorted, then explained: “Crossbows are the greater of the two orc weapons.”
“What’s the lesser?” asked Gwen.
Richard’s face ticked.
“Just because it isn’t as fancy, doesn’t mean I can’t still gut you like a fish.” Matik said, face green.
Eventually, we did come to the village. I could smell it long before I saw it: roasting meat, warm bread, fresh greens, and, was that…?
“Sweetbread? said Will.
“All the works.” assured Kevik.
We dismounted at the edge of the village. We tied our horses behind a house, so I couldn’t see anything, but the noise of the party was loud.
“How did I do?” asked Kaiylan eagerly as we dismounted. I didn’t have the heart to tell her she did terribly. I was spared this dilemna by the approach of an older orc, dresssed in red robes. His face was painted with blue lines, marking him as the tribe’s priest.
“What took you so long, Kevik?” he said.
“I’m glad you asked, sir. Would you care to tell the priest why you missed the ceremony, Kaiylan?”
The girl shuffled around. “Well, you see…”
“They were going to steal food from the imps.” said Kevik.
The shaman swore. He picked up Kaiylan and Matik by the scruffs of their necks, lifting them off the ground. He was a lot stronger than I’d expected a man his age to be. “What in Great One’s name were you thinking?”
“Ow! You know they’re not paying us enough!” said Matik.
“I’ll be the judge of that.” He released them. “It’s against our laws to punish you during the festival, but believe me, I won’t forget this come morning.”
Wisely, the kids kept their mouths shut as the priest left.
“Always so dramatic.” Lex rolled his eyes.
“/’Pups’/?” Kaiylan said. “We’ll be adults next year!”
“Great One help us when that day comes.” Kevik shook his head, then turned to Gwen. “So, I take it you shoot?”
“Oh, yes. I’ve had this Lightbow for about…” the two of them walked away, spewing incomprehensible bow/crossbow jargon.
“Well, they certainly hit it off.” Richard said.
“And I’m about to hit it off with the food table.” I said. “Anyone else?”
“Heck yes.” said Matik. “I’m so hungry, could eat Lex.”
Lex took a step away from Matik.
“I’m going to see what’s going on over there,” said Will, pointing to a small crowd gathered around something I couldn’t see.
“I’ll come with you, said Rich.
So I went off with the orcs to eat. The kids were right; the village was smaller than my own, but there wasn’t as much food as there should be for a feast. But the food was good-fresh vegetables, fruit, and even a couple of large pigs roasting on spits. The sweetbread was weird-made from some wild grain and filled with a nutty paste-but the taste grew on me.
“Where’d Will go again? I want to him to try one of these.”
“He and Richard are over at the fights. Over there, right?” said Kaiylan.
Oh yes. Fights.
The crowd wasn’t massive, but it was big enough, and loud, and resembled exactly the kind of spectator’s circle we would get on sparring days at the Academy. We fought our way through the crowd, but couldn’t find Will and Rich. We were walked in on all sides by sweaty guys screaming at the top of their lungs at whoever was punching in the fighters’ ring.
“Where’d all the women go?” asked Matik.
“They had the sense to get food before it runs out.” Kaiylan answered.
Lex pulled his shirt over his nose and wheezed dramatically. “Ugh, I can’t breathe with this much testosterone in the air!” We laughed.
The crowd burst into equal parts cheering and groaning; another match over.
The orc directly in front of me passed money to the one next to him, and said “Well, what do you know. The human’s tougher than he looks.”
“Wait, WHAT?” I yelled over his shoulder, starling him.
“See for yourself.” The orc stepped aside, and I caught a glimpse of the fighting ring. One figure lay facedown, and another stood, his fist held high by the referee.
I heard Richard yell Will’s name.
My blood froze.
I shoved my way to the front and ducked under the rope, entering the fighting ring. Much to my relief, Will was the one standing. He had more than a few cuts and scrapes, and plenty of bruises, no doubt, but-thank the Great One-no serious injuries.
I swore under my breath.
“Oh hey, Sensa!” said Rich, dropping Will’s arm. “You just missed it! Will beat this big orc guy! He kicked his-” I cut him off with a look, then pulled both of the boys out of the ring. I kept walking until we a reached a river, narrow and still (as all rivers were without the sun), and out of the party’s way. Only then did I let my anger loose.
“What. Were. You. Thinking?”
“Sensa, that orc challenged-” said Rich.
“Oh, don’t even start, Richard! I know you’re the one who talked him into it, you-” I made to punch Rich in the face, but Will caught my wrist, making me face him.
“Richard didn’t talk me into anything,” he said firmly. “That fight was my decision.”
“Willym Thomys! You’re the best tracker, the best fighter in our party; you just put our whole quest at risk! Orcs are twice as strong, twice as fast as humans! I would expect something so stupid from Rich-“
“Hey!” Rich said indignantly.
“Sensa, I paid attention in class. I know the odds of beating an orc weaponless are slim. But I watched this one fight several times before he challenged me. I knew his style. I accepted the challenge because I knew I could beat him.”
I bit back my automatic protest. At least some forethought went into it. And the part of me that wasn’t channeling the wrath of the Great One was actually rather impressed; its no small feat to beat an orc. I counted to thirty to calm myself.
“Alright then. Thank the Great One you’re not hurt; we would have had to stay here until you recovered.”
“Not hurt?” Will said with mock indignance, letting go of my wrist, which was now covered in his sweat. “I’ve got cuts all over from those cursed quills of his, my whole body feels like a bruise, and-”
“And you’re drenched in sweat.” I grinned. “Go take a bath!” I pushed him into the river.
Will surfaced again a moment later, gasping. Richard and I laughed quite hard.
“Nice one, Sensa!” Richard and I stacked fists.
“C-Can you swim S-S-Sensa?” Will asked, shivering.
“Yeah, there was a pond in my village, growing up. Why do you- oH NO YOU DON’T, YOU LITTLE-” Will lunged up suddenly, grabbed my arms, and pulled me into the water.
The water was so cold, it stopped my heart for a moment. I broke the surface, gasping and swearing.
“It’s f-f-freezing, Will!” I shivered.
“After you get used to it, it’s not so bad.” Will’s smiled. His hair, like mine, was plastered to his face.
Richard was just standing over us, laughing. Before we could subject him, too, to the icy water, Gwen jogged up to us. She was followed by Kevik, the orc with the blond ponytail and that cool firearm. Both of them were flushed and panting like they’d just sprinted a long way.
“You guys missed it!” Gwen said, smiling from ear to ear. “It was the best- Wait, why are you swimming?”
“Long story,” I said, looking up at her. “So tell me, is this what it feels like to be shorter than everyone?
“Pretty much.” Gwen grinned. “I was coming to tell you to join the festival. A band started playing, so everyone’s been dancing, but orc dancing is way different than Warrior dancing. There’s all this jumping, and fancy footwork, and you’ve got to be really fast, so now I’m exhausted. And hungry. Want to get some food?”
“We’ve got to dry off, first,” said Will, hoisting himself out of the river.
“We’ll met you at the food table.” I pulled myself out as well, and tried to wring some of the water out of my hair.
While the other three left to eat, Will and I sloshed back to the horses. We grabbed dry clothes, parted ways to change, then met back up at the horses again. I stroked my horse (Kay, a brown mare) while Will assessed our supplies. Another horse lurked in the corner of my eye. My nightmare. I reached for a handful of feed for my real horse, but my fingers scraped the bottom of the bag.
“We’re almost out of feed,” I told Will, as Kay ate the crumbs out of my hand.
“We’re almost out of everything.” Will replied, peering into a saddlebag. “We’ll have to stock up with the orcs.”
“Did you hear what Kaiylan and the others were saying? They don’t have enough food to begin with. They can’t grow or hunt anything, so they’re reliant on the imps for food.”
“Because the imps can grow plants the way faeries do.” Will rubbed his temples, then exhaled and looked up with a tight smile. “We’ll figure it out later. Come on, the others are waiting for us.”
We walked back toward the party. About halfway there, Will stopped suddenly.
“Do you hear that?” he asked.
“I don’t hear anything.”
“Exactly. What happened to the music?” I looked at Will; my own uneasiness was mirrored in his eyes. We had left our weapons with the horses.
A figure sprinted toward us. I lowered into a fighter’s stance and raised my fists.
“Run!” shouted the figure.
“Is that Rich?” asked Will.
“RUN!” the figure-definitely Richard-sprinted right past me.
“What?” I said.
An arrow whizzed past my head. Then another. That’s when I started to hear the angry shouts.
“I think we’d better run,” said Will. As I turned, I heard shouting. Nearing us. I bolted for the horses.
And the world descended into chaos.
Will and I ran as fast as we could, but the thick underbrush, fallen tree limbs, and flying arrows slowed us down. We would have been outrun anyway; when orcs drop to all fours, their powerful legs make them twice as fast as humans. Shouts grew louder, and soon I saw the world in the orange light of torchfire. The orcs were gaining on us.
I yanked Will to the side; a spear sliced the air where his head had been and lodged itself in a tree. Unfortunately, Will’s momentum carried him farther than I had pulled, dragging both of us to the left. We fell into the underbrush, which gave way to reveal a steep drop I hadn’t noticed when running. We tumbled down the hill in a jumble of limbs until the ground leveled. My back ached like a troll had sat on it, and a trickle of blood marred my left eye’s field of vision. But Will rolled to his knees and pulled me up with a groan.
“I can see the horses!” he said. “That fall was a gift from the Great One!” I simply moaned in reply, and sprinted to the horses despite my back and pain in my legs.
The horses were skittish with nervousness when we got to them; I could hear the orcs approaching faintly. I quickly calmed Kay, untied her bridle from the branch she’d been hitched, and swung myself onto her back. In a moment, Will too, was mounted. With a bloody gash on his leg and dozens of new scratches in addition to his fighting ring wounds, Will looked about as bad as I felt.
“Let’s go,” I said. “They know where to meet us.”
Will shook his head. “I’m not leaving without Gwen and Richard.”
“Will, if we let those orcs catch up to us, they will kill us. Literally.”
“And of they catch Gwen or Richard, they’ll kill them!”
“Richard and Gwen are excellent fighters. They can handle themselves.”
“They’re up against a whole orc village!” Will shouted. “They’re good fighters, but they’re not the best, and even if they were-”
“Oh, and you’re the best, aren’t you, Master Top-in-His-Class?” I retorted viciously. “You’ve proved you can take down one, so now you can handle a whole orc village?”
“Okay then, Miss Nothing-Matters-Except-Finding-My-Gramma, let’s just leave our team behind so you can save your sorry butt and finish a quest that you dragged us into! You’re being selfish, Sensa!”
“And you’re being stupid, and arrogant!”
Just then, someone burst through the brush. Will drew one of his swords, and I my knife, but it was Richard. Despite what I’d just said, I felt a huge weight off my shoulders to see my friend safe. He mounted his own horse, out of breath.
“Where’s Gwen?” asked Will.
“She’s not here yet?” he asked. “When the orcs started coming after us, she ran straight for the horses. They chased me through the woods.”
“Why are they after us in the first place?” Will asked. “They were good hosts last time I checked.”
Rich turned beet red. “We’ll talk about it later.”
“Why are they after us, Richard?” I demanded.
“IkindofthrewmyspearatKevik.” He spat, flushing even darker red.
“WHAT?!?!” Will and I screamed in unison.
Gwen burst through the brush, clutching her right arm close to her chest. My relief at seeing her alive was countered by worry that she may have broken her arm, but she nimbly mounted her horse, using her right arm normally.
“They’re right behind me,” she screeched. She punctuated this statement by dodging a flying arrow. “GO!”
We raced into the night as fast as our horses could take us.