Amenthiel, the queen of Men, rolled her husband’s wedding ring around in her fingers. She did not bother to wipe the falling tears from them. They would just be replaced. Besides, the fireplace next to her would dry them soon enough once they stopped. She shifted further down under the soft cotton blanket she was wrapped in as she sat on the floor by the fire.
It was a very rare occasion that Amenthiel felt that she could be vulnerable around another, even family, but she always felt comfortable in this old house, just a couple blocks from her palace. An elderly man entered the room with a tray.
“You want some more tea, my dear,” he asked in hushed tones, barely louder than the crackling of the fire.
“Um, no, thank you,” Amenthiel replied.
“I remember when he procured that for you,” the old man said. “After your father and I had settled details of the marriage between you, he couldn’t wait to get to the jeweler. He ran as far as I could see him through the city, not even waiting for his horse to be brought.”
Another pair of tears escaped Amanthiel’s face and fell onto her hands as she watched the ring glow by the fire.
“Anniversaries are always the hardest, my dear,” he said, settling into a chair in the large stately parlor.
Amenthiel finally spoke up, “He always knew how to focus my thoughts. Any time I had a problem come up, it didn’t matter if it was farmers squabbling over whose sheep are whose or treaty negotiations, he knew what I needed to solve the problem.” Tears began welling up again, but this time she fought them off, sniffed and wiped her face. She continued talking, trying to mask the quiver in her voice.
“And now I have this horrible issue with E’mani Karos. Information still hasn’t been made known to the public so it looks like we are hiding something, some rumors are saying it was a lover’s spat and I’m trying to get rid of him before he tells people we were having an affair for years, all kinds of nasty things. I feel like I don’t even have it straight in my head why we are following this path. I haven’t heard from the Judges in days. I don’t like what my uncle was getting into with that mythical weapon or whatever, and the torture he was conducting. The public could link that to me; it was still happening during the last year. I would remove all those wicked orcs from our land if I could, but I would never do it that way.”
She looked up at her father-in-law, searching for counsel. As much as she hated feeling weak or insufficient, right now she just needed a comforting voice.
The old man looked down at her with soft eyes and folded his hands in his lap. “I wish I could remove this burden from you sometimes. But, then I think to myself, to whom would I pass them? I think, even though it is difficult and full of grief, these responsibilities are in the best hands. You are strong, my dear. You are courageous and compassionate. Most importantly, you are calculating. That is what has always set the line of Amensol apart, the ability to weigh issues on a larger scale.”
He leaned forward in his chair and brought his tender voice to a quieted crescendo, trying to get her mind off of her losses and onto the problem at hand.
“So, what now are the issues, child? A scandal, unknown? Whispers in a mistress’ parlor, at the bars in the taverns? Your people search for answers when they are not presented with one. You command the respect of your people still. Give them an answer, subtle yet truthful. E’mani did abandon his post. There were five murdered soldiers found at his property. There are even rumors that an orc was seen entering his property. That all is seditious without question. The whys and the wherefores do not matter to the public.
“This is causing contention in our people. What we need is something to bring us back together. It is a shame that E’mani has fallen so far instead of coming straight to you with any grievances, however, it seems to be the case. Rally the people around a common goal. E’mani has not betrayed the crown, he has betrayed his people.”
Amenthiel sat in silence for a moment, still fiddling with her late husband’s ring. She finally slipped it onto her thumb, the only finger it came close to fitting, and wiped her face one last time.
She looked up at her father-in-law and weakly smiled at him. “I appreciate you, Da,” she said.
The patriarch of the Deviare family, Galen, looked down upon his daughter-in-law and smiled. “And I, you, my dear.”
“Stdryeshu, UMAN!” the crowd chanted as it dragged Kador through the dirt streets of Hanggore, the great bastion of the North Tusk Orcs. The guards in front tugged on the coarse rope binding his hands together as they made their way up the side of the sloped town. An untied Uman, as they were called, generally meant a non-threat to the clan, but if someone was led through the town tied up, it signified a menace to the town, therefore no respect was merited.
“Stdryeshu! Stdryeshu!” The orcs poured into the streets as they saw the man being led toward their leader’s perch. Young orc children carried wooden swords and spears and jumped up and down in all the excitement. The soldiers pulled hard on the lead and Kador stumbled over a rock outcropping and fell to his knees.
The crowd circled closer and closer to him as he struggled to his feet. One orc stepped into the perimeter and kicked him in his shoulder, trying to knock him over. Kador had just enough movement in his hands to grab the orc’s foot and twist, sending him to the ground beside him. And then it started.
A couple large orcs grabbed their comrade and pulled him away from the dangerous human while two others stepped in and kicked him, one in his face and one to his stomach. The chanting stopped, replaced by garbled shouts from each individual in the crowd. The soldiers holding his binds decided he wasn’t getting up fast enough and backtracked a few steps and joined in the beating. Kador put his arms up, but the lack of movement from his bound hands kept him from blocking the onslaught of blows from the crowd. A sharp heat was felt in the side of his thigh, followed by the jerk of someone pulling out a sharp object of some sort. His captors yelled something loud and the crowd ceased long enough for them to raise him to his feet. In the span of fifteen seconds, Kador was bleeding out of multiple places on his face, chest, an arm and a leg. It wasn’t the first time he’d been piled on in a brawl, but it was the first time there was no nearby law men to assist if things got out of hand. These orcs would not hesitate to torture or kill him.
The large hall where the leader of the North Tusk Orcs presided was not that far as the crow flies, but the streets in the city wound back and forth across the mountainside, elongating the random beatings from those in the crowd. Even the young ones would run up and either poke him with their dull stick spears or smack him with the sides of their wooden swords, no doubt leaving bruises all over his body. He just had to make it to the Oosha’ruk.
On the side of the mountain divide, overlooking the town of Hanggore, Valgrugthrinostek, banished kaa’ruk of the North Tusk Orcs, followed the crowd with her eyes as the town emptied into the streets. She kept in her squatted posture as she jaunted down to the huts on the outskirts. She could hear some of her fellow orcs still in the house. Val peered around the corner of the building at the crowd, now at least 500 paces away. They were heading up the last incline before it opened into a courtyard of sorts before the hall.
She darted backside to backside, working her way around the outside of the town behind huts and barracks and shops until she was just behind a building on the backside of the hall. She spotted the guard’s entrance on the backside, right where it had always been. As she moved toward the empty clearing, an orc soldier came around the corner of the building. She stepped back, unsure of what he would do.
The orc stopped for a moment and stared at her face. Above her eye was a faint tattoo, a crude circle with a dot on the outside. This female was banished from the clan. But, at the same time, she wore the ornate ear clasps of the kaa’ruk. He was unsure of what to think.
“Kaa’ruk, you are forbidden,” he finally muttered to her in their orc tongue. “I must report you to my kaa’ruk.”
“Stupid,” Val said dryly, trying to think on her feet. “You do not know who I am. I am a spy of the Oosha’ruk to the Uman. The mark of the banished is only a coloring. I am on a mission. Get out of my way, fool.”
The much larger and broader male orc thought to himself a moment. “Well, if you are a spy, then wipe the mark off of your brow.”
“You are stupid, hagam,” she said back to him. Hagam is what the kaa’ruks called the male orcs, a term both endearing and belittling, akin to calling them their dumb little children.
“If I wipe the coloring off now, there will be a smudge on my face. Do you want me to get caught by the Uman? If I die, who will help you in battle? You will not overcome without the kaa’ruk to help you! Speak to no one that you saw me for my mission is a secret!”
“Uh, yes, kaa’ruk. I will only tell my kaa’ruk and her alone.” And he began to walk away.
Val threw up her hands as he began to walk away in frustration and looked around. A pile of firewood lay against the outside of the building. She grabbed a large piece and took two long steps and cracked the piece of wood over the male’s head, sending him immediately to the dirt.
“So stupid,” she mumbled as she grabbed his boots and dragged him behind the building. She then proceeded to race toward the back door into the great hall.
Kador’s un squinted and bruised eye beheld the entrance to the hall of the Oosha’ruk. Val told him of this place where the business of the North Tusk Orcs was held. It was not unlike the Temple of Ocirico in Thronefast, where worship and legal proceeding happened. It was ornate, but not as a man would suppose. The stone was hewn but rough. There were faded handprints of some kind of ochre or berry that rested on some of the stones though he wasn’t sure of their meaning. The wooden structures were also of rough sawn wood but there was more that just structural supports. Moulding and rafters in geometric designs donned the ceilings. On the walls were hung dyed leather and woolen tapestries with symbols unfamiliar to Kador. Studs of various metals were riveted into designs on the leather. Upon his entrance through the front door, he immediately noticed the smell of incense. He wasn’t sure what he had anticipated, but he did not anticipate the warm and sweet smell of herbs and oils. As a matter of fact, the entire town smelled better than walking the streets of the growing city of Thronefast and it wasn’t much bigger than this city.
His thought on the sights and smells of his surrounding halted as someone behind him kicked him in his back and sent him face first into the dirt arena at the center of the hall. He could hear the orcs piling into the balcony surrounding the arena. A tall wall, probably seven or eight cubits high and made of stone, ran up and formed a circle around the arena. There were noticeably larger orcs positioned on a platform slightly sticking over the arena at one part. In between them, he could make out only the bust of a female orc wearing brightly colored leather, her hair dusted white and braided with metals and gems. She sat on a throne that rose above her head and bore carvings of some of the symbols he had seen on the wall tapestries. This had to be the Oosha’ruk, the the spiritual and political leader of the clan.
The Oosha’ruk leaned over and said something illegible to Kador to the another female orc standing to her right. She stepped forward and looked sternly down at Kador.
“Vwe do not know you, Uman, yet you vwish to speak vwith de grreat Oosha’ruk. You say you brring vword from the gods against Oosha’ruk. Dis is de only way an outsiderr vwould be able to see Oosha’ruk. So some orrc tell you dis. You vwill tell Oosha’ruk dis orrc.” Then she abruptly stepped back to her position.
Kador looked around at the hundreds of orcs who were in attendance inside. He tried to clear his mouth with his tongue and spit a good amount of blood onto the dirt floor.
“I am Kador of the Uman,” he said loudly. He wasn’t sure how many in attendance would understand him, but he was sure the Oosha’ruk did not speak his language as the female speaking before began whispering to her as he spoke.
“I have brought a message from the gods. The North Tusk Orc have angered them with the end of peace between you and the Elvonnen… who YOU KILLED at the holy place of the Elvonnen in the, uh, uh, Vrona!” He was having a hard time remembering all this, even though Val had gone over it several times with him.
Immediately, about one quarter of the orcs around the room began chattering loudly to those next to them, appearing to understand what he said and relaying the scandal to their neighbors. The servant next to the leader bent down as the more animated Oosha’ruk spoke much quicker now and shover her forward once she was done.
“Oosha’ruk says dis a lie. Orrc always peace vwith Elvanu! Uman vwill die forr not respect Oosha’ruk!”
“There is more,” Kador raised his voice. The orcs in attendance were highly intrigued by this scandal unfolding before them.
“The Oosha’ruk killed the Elvonnen for the stone he carried. The Elvonnen owned one of the Black Stones of Protection, uh of Promise. The Black Stones of Promise! Oosha’ruk killed the Elvonnen for the power of the dragons. You will know I tell the truth when Oosha’ruk uses this power!”
There was more lively talking around the balcony as the leader was holding her interpreter by the hair and pulling her close, speaking into her ear loudly.
“There is more,” Kador shouted again before the interpreter made it to the floor. “The gods have saw fit for me to deliver something to the Oosha’ruk personally for her grievances against Ooshava and the gods…” Kador put his hand inside his shirt and paused for a moment.
“… her death!”
Kador flung something out of his shirt toward the Oosha’ruk as the two bodyguards and the interpreter leapt in front of their leader. It hit the interpreter right in the stomach and fell to the floor. She grabbed her stomach to see if she was dying. The pouch that hit her fell to the floor and two stones tumbled out onto the floor. The three protectors looked down at the bag in confusion.
“BACK,” Val shouted, as her knife blade slid up against the throat of the Oosha’ruk. She stepped out from behind the throne. The guards and servant were ten paces away, unable to do anything to save the life of their leader.
The orcs all turned eyes away from the Uman in the arena to the Oosha’ruk’s throne. One of the bodyguards immediately began yelling insults at the banished orc holding their leader captive. This was joined by a chorus of yelling from all orcs in attendance.
Val conjured flames from her free hand and pressed it up against the Oosha’ruk’s face, instantly evoking a scream. The room fell silent.
Kador looked around at each orc becoming still. Val began to speak, but he had no idea what she was saying.
“I am Valgrugthrinostek Baa’luvanooshava, kaa’ruk of North Tusk, banished by Konekavra, Oosha’ruk. Ooshava cursed me to lead orcs into peace with humans, to spare our ancestral land that holds the blood spilled by our clan. Instead, Konekavra ignored the humans and returned from the great war of the gods to our homeland stolen.
“Now, Konekavra has killed an Elvonnen of the plains, poisoned with orc medicine, and robbed of the Promise Stone of the gods. She seeks to win wars and lose respect for North Tusk with our sisters and our enemies.”
“You know nothing,” Konekavra said menacingly, wincing under the pressure of Val’s knife. “The death of the Elvonnen is not accounted to North Tusk.”
“And how is that,” Val said, loudly enough to keep the conversation within earshot of all in the arena.
“The Council ordered it.”
The room erupted again in quieter tones, but intense conversations.
“Did the council visit Hanggore,” Val asked loudly.
“No.” “No.” The replies came back from all over the room.
Konekavra spoke up, “The Council sent kaa’ruk to order the stone be attained. They came less than one cycle ago. The council has taken responsibility for the death of the Elvonnen.”
“And where is the council now,” Val shouted.
“None know the council’s location. You know that.”
“And I also know that you know something. You are conniving as I am,” Val said and shoved her flaming hand back against the Oosha’ruk’s face.
“Yes, I know!” Konakavra screamed. “The kaa’ruk brought clothes for snow and came across the sea. I could smell the fish on her.”
Val tightened the knife under her neck, wanting more.
“Yes, and… and… she brought the blue crystals of sickness in her bags. You can find them now!”
“Kadorr! You leave now! I stay forr you to leave, den I come!”
Kador finally understood something, and it didn’t involve him dying. He held his hands out to the soldiers at the entrance to the hall. An orc dutifully released his hands with not even a snarl then turned away from him back to his Oosha’ruk. Kador slowly walked out of the hall backwards with none of the crowd that was just beating him to death even giving him as much of a glance. He made it out to the small crowd outside, who all were listening intently to what was happening inside and walked straight through the center of the crowd untouched.
Val leaned over and whispered to Konekavra, “I will not be back, even if Hanggore burns to the ground. Fulfill your duties and let me go unharmed. You remember the deal that was struck.”
“I do,” replied Konekavra, unpleased by the way this turned out. Val knew that at least Konekavra was covered from the death of the Elvonnen. The orc would never question the truthfulness of their leader. And Val knew that it would be a stretch, even for Konekavra, to want to win at the expense of her respect with the Elvonnen.
Konekavra put her hand up to the orcs in the room. Val released her knife from her neck and sheathed it at her side. She looked around for what she imagined would be the last time, seeing her clan on her land. She nodded toward them, and brazenly walked out the way she had come.
E’mani heard a rustle in the bushes outside the broken down cottage deep in the woods in a divide of the Roans just off of Avendyr’s Pass. The old cottage had housed an old crazy widow when he was a child. He and his best friend, Turc, had visited her often as she made very good bread and for some reason, preferred the company of the two young boys and nobody else. They had watched out for her and brought her items as she had need. She had passed away shortly after they had joined the military.
Turc emerged in the small clearing to the side of the house. E’mani spotted him through the side of a broken out window and waited.
“I’m alone,” Turc said in a normal tone. E’mani looked around and listened. There were no sounds of scurrying animals or fleeing birds. It appeared to him to be safe. He knew that Turc would be extra cautious, unless his friend had turned on him. He prayed that wasn’t the case.
E’mani stepped through the opening where a door should have been.
“T, it has been a while,” E’mani said.
“I believe,” Turc replied, “the last time I saw you was while waiting to meet two beautiful women at the market. You stood me up, I stood them up, and now I can’t get either one to talk to me.”
“In my defense,” E’mani responded, “I’ve had a hard time getting anyone to talk to me as well.”
Turc entered the roofless cabin and sat down on a wooden box placed strategically by a table, part of a set of makeshift chairs. E’mani joined him at the table on a produce crate.
“What’s going on,” Turc finally broke the unease. “E’mani, there’s no word from leadership, our captains… There was no official statement that has come out regarding you. All that we had been told was that your capture was priority. All our friends are gossiping, making up scenarios or grabbing the juiciest story they’ve heard around town and copying it. And it’s everything from treason and murder to love affairs with the queen.”
“And what do you think?”
Turc sighed and looked in his friend’s eyes. “I know that the day you left, everything was normal. I know your regimented schedule and I’m with you most of the time when we are not on duty and part of the time we are. And… I know that the soldier who would rush into the fray that day in the plains of Azeris to retrieve the bodies of Queen Amenthiel’s husband and uncle, knowing they were already dead, just so they could be mourned and buried properly, is a soldier with the highest integrity.”
E’mani shifted uncomfortably on his crate, finally able to allow the events of the last month to sink in. And for the first time since his last day in Thronefast, he had a true friend to encourage him.
“But beyond all that, as your oldest friend, I know how much loyalty means to you; and that you would never do anything to jeopardize your job as a protector or Thronefast.”
E’mani rested his chin on his folded hands, thinking of his position, the sense of joy that came from the fulfillment of his duty. He thought of his friends, his fellow brothers at arms, and the battles they had fought together, the losses they mourned together, and purpose they shared, bringing peace and prosperity to Men. He remembered his quarters, his rise from nothing to his stately room and furnishings, the glances of approval from passers by, unlike the disinterest or scorns he received as an orphaned child. And, in that moment, the hero of Thronefast, E’mani Karos, began to cry.
The hours past through the night as Turc heard all that had happened, from the stumbling upon the torture rooms under Thronefast, to his escape into the wilderness of the Silent Plains, to his capture and escape. He asked questions to fill in bits of information, trying to give an outside perspective and make sense of it all.
“How terrible must this weapon be that would warrant this much collateral damage,” Turc said, shaking his head.
“Whatever it is,” E’mani replied, “it is worth more than the calling of religion and duty of station for a Jodge of Nador.
“It’s worth much more than that. Luc Demith is dead, killed by the mercenary “M” the night after you escaped.”
E’mani’s head shot up at that news. “Wait, what?”
“Yeah, of course we aren’t releasing that information to the public, but volunteered to return to Thronefast with some correspondence and goods from the Sanctum and one of the letters is an official statement regarding his death, and another “unofficial” statement for the General. I just happened to hear from the soldier who found his body upstairs in his quarters, covered in blood.”
“He had told me that he was working for someone, but he didn’t elude for whom.”
“Well, he may not have said anything, but there was correspondence that came sealed to him when I brought supplies to the Sanctum a week ago. And, it just so happened that the sealed letter bore the same signet as a crate of goods from Thronefast.” Turc dropped a piece of cloth with a sketch onto the table in front of E’mani. The moons allowed more than enough light to see the symbol.
“By the gods,” E’mani whispered under his breath. The symbol was the crest of the Deviare family, wealthy nobles of the Azure Isles whose marriage to Queen Amentthiel had brought them and their vast wealth and empire under the rule and protection of Thronefast.
“This means they are trying to get to the throne by whatever means they can now that Prince Gaticus is dead. We must do something.”
“Whoa, whoa, there,” Turc leapt up from the table. “You’re talking about the family now related to the Queen. You can’t do anything here. What, go turn yourself in the Amenthiel and tell her that her late husband’s family is behind the scenes of a plot to amass power to cement themselves in the palace? There’s no way the queen doesn’t already know about at least some of this. The order to bring you in came from the queen herself!”
“This is beyond even that, Turc. Think back. Have you ever asked yourself what the reason was for the trek to the plains of Azeris? Did any of us know why the King’s brother was leading us into that deathtrap? He even brought the Prince, a member of the house of Deviare. There’s old relics and ruins from old orc empires in that area. We just don’t know how deep it runs.”
“If the Queen doesn’t know, you’ll never convince her that her husband’s family is part of it.”
“That’s not for me to assume,” E’mani said, standing up. “As always, I fight for my queen and my people, to the service of Men, even if I need to convince my queen and my people of it.”
E’mani looked over at the tattered cloth on the table. He did not appreciate his character and integrity being questioned for sure, but even worse was the thought that the integrity of Men was being questioned, and could be damaged politically, by the actions of a few select nobles. Something had to be done and there was no one else to do it.
“So, then… I guess what’s the plan,” Turc said.
“Remember the tales of Avendyr going out to meet Ossari on the field of battle with no knowledge of when or if the Suns of Terminus would even show up to assist? That’s the plan. We are going to attack head on and pray that Ocirico’s Hammer brings us favor.”
“And if the rot runs deeper than you think?”
E’mani took the cloth off the table and threw it in the dirt in a corner of the building. “You remember the stories of Havensong. We fight for the good of our people, even if we have to burn our own city to the ground.”