You’d think after a couple of years of living at The Bar and traveling between worlds I’d be used to the unexpected. Still there are days that I run across things that catch me completely off guard. Today though, I found myself standing on my balcony with a slack jawed expression on my face looking down at a new visitor to The Bar. I say new. Let’s go with new to me. I mean hell, who knows how many people have passed through here in the millennia before my three year stay. This guy however just reached right back to the part of my brain that was a nerdy teenager and woke it right the hell up.
Luckily I’m really hungover and not fully conscious, so I didn’t squeal and run down the stairs like an idiot. I mean, I’ve got a reputation as a stone cold killer to think of after all. Can’t let the public know that there’s an old school gamer lurking in the back of my mind that just keeps pissing his pants every time I come across something straight out of the fantasy novels I read as a kid. I’m supposed to be unemotional and difficult to shake up goddammit.
It was my intent to come down the stairs with a casual air of indifference. You know be cool…smooth even. Unfortunately I spent most of last night drinking myself stupid on the cheapest shit Bobby keeps behind his bar and smooth was not on my list of capabilities. I did, however, manage to get within two steps of the main floor before I tripped over my own sluggish feet. I also managed to have enough reflexes still functional to keep from landing flat of my face on the stone floor. The tuck and roll I executed may not have been the best in my long list of moves, but it at least I managed to end it standing up.
I managed to walk the rest of the way to the bar without further incident. I sure hope this guy isn’t looking to hire me, or at least he’s willing to overlook my first impression. Once I get there, I take a seat a few places from what I can only describe as an orc. He was well over six and a half feet tall probably closer to seven and had to come in around 350 pounds. Did I mention he was green? His skin had this really dark green hue, kind of like the undergrowth in a rainforest. His face and arms were covered with tattoos in tribal designs and what I assume were symbols from his language. His arms also had raised brands where some of the symbols had been burned into his skin. He was dressed in buckskin pants and a buckskin vest adorned with feathers, wooden beads, and small skulls. He had a mace hanging from his belt that was fashioned from the leg bone of something roughly the size of a T-Rex. It too was adorned with feathers and skulls. His right tusk had a hole drilled through it and a large gold ring passed through it. He was an orc’s orc.
Once the initial gawking phase passed my rational brain kicked in and did a threat assessment. He was big, and I was willing to bet he was strong as hell, but . Probably not that quick though. Best tactic would be strike and retreat repeatedly cutting as deeply as possible and hope to wear him down before he gets a hold of me and pops me like a ripe grape. Did I think I could kill him? I’d have a better shot at it than most, but I would pay for it in pain and blood. I mean if the Hulk had tusks, that would be what I’m looking at. Here’s hoping he’s not here hunting me.
I order my breakfast and tell Bobby to leave the pot of coffee. He does it with a little chuckle and a shake of his head then walks back down to talk to our new guest. They exchange a few grunts and growls and then they both break into a laugh so heartfelt I couldn’t help but smile. The orc notices my grin and bursts out laughing again even harder. Paranoia kicks in when it dawns on me that they must’ve been speaking in orcish, and I must have been the butt of some joke shared between them. I felt like that idiot nerd I had been back in high school and my face flushed red, not with embarrassment but with anger. It took me a second to realize my hind brain was trying to decide if the possibility of pain was acceptably low enough to try and put this guy in a hole.
Bobby must’ve noticed what was happening because he turned and said something else to the orc and all laughter stopped. That’s when the really odd thing happened. The orc turned to me and lowered his eyes in deference and spoke…in English.
“I apologize if we have offended you with our laughter. It was not at your expense. I was explaining to Bobby that I had heard tales of your deeds, of the ones you have ended, and they all portray you as a giant. One who is able to crush his enemies with a mere flick of his hand. To hear those who have had cause to fear you tell it, I expected you to be…taller.”
He’s right. I’m not tall at all. However, he’s also right that I have ended more than a few of my targets with a flick of my wrist. It’s not that hard to throw a dagger or a flechette hard enough to kill someone with that little motion. Provided you know where to put it when you do. That’s when I realize I had already dropped a flechette into the palm of my right hand. I tell myself it’s a bad idea, so I push it back into the scabbard on my wrist and turn back to my food.
“I get that a lot,” I say. “Usually from someone I’m standing over as their life is draining away. No offense taken. Please excuse my rash behavior. I’m still more than a little drunk and my emotions tend to run a little higher when I’m like this.” I turn to Bobby and ask for a refill on my pot of coffee. I should probably get my head as clear as possible as quickly as possible, so my new friend doesn’t have reason to pop it like a zit. As a general rule I try not to die whenever possible.
The orc laughs again. The rumble of it makes my fork rattle on the bar. I’ll admit it. I was impressed.
“We often drink and fight in my tribe. Since we are orcs it’s usually not fatal. My people do love battle, even with each other. May I join you? I’d like to talk to you about a proposition.”
I give him a nod and tilt my head to the barstool next to me. He crosses the space between us in a couple of short steps and the sound of his feet hitting the floor of the bar reminds of that movie about a theme park full of dinosaurs. I look and sure enough the surface of my coffee is rippling from the impact of his steps. Damn. Easy Tole…do not sit here slack jawed…shut that gaping pie-hole!!
“I’m afraid we did not get off to the best of beginnings. My name is Valsh. I am the shaman for the Deep Valley Tribe. My world is called Orta’ahn. My people need your help.”
Normally this is where I cut off the conversation with my prospective clients and tell them I don’t give a shiny fuck about their people and their need for my help. I just don’t care. All I need to know is who you want dead and if you’re willing to meet my price to have me kill them. However, this guy’s an orc and I’m a big old nerd so I kinda want to learn more about him and his people. Who knows? Maybe some of the things I learned and read when I was a punk ass kid will be confirmed and maybe I’ll learn something I never expected. Only thing it’ll cost me is time which I could use to sober up before I commit to something that’s gonna get me dead. I motion for him to continue.
“Before I can ask this thing of you I feel you should know who you are working for and what you are getting involved with. My people live for battle. We believe that if a man has honor and dies at the hands of a worthy enemy in a well fought battle will guarantee us a hero’s place in the Halls of War where can battle on for all of eternity. Without honor the guards of the Halls will laugh at us and cast us out. This is what we strive for. This is what guides us in everything we do. This is why I am here.”
“Our tribes are led by a chieftain we call our War Leader. He alone is responsible for deciding where and when our warriors fight and die. He alone can commit us to honorable battle to assure our places in the Halls of War. We fight and die at his whim. He is the commander we all follow…and he has lost his mind.”
When he said this last bit, his shoulders slumped forward and his voice lost its edge of confidence and pride. He was a man who was defeated and lost. He almost seemed…smaller somehow.
After a minute to gather his thoughts he continued, but now there was anger in his tone.
“He sends us against those with whom we have no hostility. Weaker tribes have been wiped from existence. We normally absorb the women and pups from tribes that are devastated beyond recovery. He orders them put to the blade as well. There is no honor is the slaughter of the weak. He has sent those who oppose his views into battle against much larger forces they had no hope of defeating. Senseless waste of life for nothing but the displeasure of a maniac. It must stop.”
Everything he’s said to me so far sounds a lot like a culture of warrior monks or maybe something like what Gene Roddenberry envisioned for one of his alien races. If so, a crazy leader shouldn’t be a leader for long.
“Sounds to me like someone in your tribe needs to challenge his right to rule…provided that’s how it works in your culture.”
“Normally that is exactly what would happen and if things were different it would have happened already. The problem with that is that he’s also one of the smartest among us and realized long ago that he wanted to rule for as long as he could. He has surrounded himself with a cadre of fanatics who believe he is the chosen of both the god of battle and the god of death. They defend him with their bodies and their lives. In order to earn the right to challenge him directly you have to fight your way up the chain to him. That means you have to kill them all, and no one in our tribe is that skilled. The best of our warriors not in his personal guard fell at the third challenge. I fear we are left with a most dishonorable choice.”
“You want me to kill him when your best warriors have failed to? If I do this, you do realize I’m not going to face him in open combat. I’m going to sneak in and kill him in his sleep or poison him or shoot him from a very long way off. Are you ok with that?”
“Yes, I understand exactly what I’m asking of you. I am asking you to deny my leader his eternal reward. More than that though, when he is found dead his guard will all take their own lives as well. Suicide for failure to perform your duty is required, but it also means denial into the Halls of War. I am asking you to kill one but damn fifty. Does this change things for you?”
“Don’t see why it should. Far as I can tell they all damned themselves. Choices have consequences. Speaking of which, can’t be much honor in hiring a killer to do what you should be doing yourself. I can’t imagine I’ll be doing your personal honor much of a favor.”
“You are right,” he sighed. “I am also asking you to damn me. I will not be given entrance either. I know that this is the right thing to do for my people, but the Guards of the Halls will not see it so.“
“Like I said…choices. Free will’s a bitch and we fuck ourselves as often as not. Oh well, I have no doubt where I’m headed when I finally find someone deadlier than me, so maybe I’ll see you there.”
This brought another round of laughter from my green friend and he clapped me on the back nearly knocking me off my stool in the process. It was a lot like getting smacked with a fucking country ham.
“Could be that you are right there. I think I like you Tole. You may have the frail little body of a human, but I think you have the heart of an orc.”
After that we sat in silence for quite a while. I finished my second pot of coffee and third plate of food before either of us spoke again. I really didn’t know what I was going to say other than working out my price, but something told me that was not where I needed to go next. I was scanning his body, studying the anatomy, and analyzing anything I could see as a potential weakness. Valsh caught me doing it and cocked an eyebrow.
“Already planning where to strike? We haven’t even discussed your fee or even if you’re willing to do this thing. Like I said…heart of an orc.” He finished that last with another rumbling chuckle.
“You know damned well I’m going to take the job. I didn’t want to risk insulting you by starting the price negotiations too soon. Once you agree to pay me, I have no doubt you will. Normally I tell my clients that payment is not optional and imply that it can either be in currency or their blood. I don’t think that’s an issue with you. I know you will honor a bargain once it’s made.”
“I’m going to guess by your lack of shiny adornments that orcs don’t place a great deal of value in gold and jewels. I do, but I also trade in favors. You said you are a shaman. Is it safe to assume that all of those markings and brands on you are mystical in origin?”
“They are,” he replied but his tone was now more curious. “and you are right in that my people do not value material things. I can see you have some markings of your own. Perhaps I can offer you something that will be of more value than trinkets that are easily lost.”
“My thoughts exactly,” I said while trying to hide the grin on my face that my mom used to call the cat who ate the canary.
Friday, July 6, 2018
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