One day turned into almost a week. The first few days were spent learning the basics of orcish culture, and it was a hell of a lot more complicated than I would have ever thought. I always assumed that orcs were just mindless fighting machines who lived to make war. Boy was I wrong. There are more ways to insult an orc’s honor than there are ways to use cotton. A sneeze at the wrong time in front of the wrong orc could result in a multigenerational feud between families. It all got very confusing very quickly, and Valsh got more than a little frustrated with me.
“AAARRRRGGG!! WHY DO THE GODS TEST ME SO?!?!?,” Valsh roared into the jungle after my fiftieth failed attempt to say the appropriate greeting for a War Leader. “I swear a three year old pup can get this, why can’t you?” He finished his question by throwing a long dagger at a tree and sinking it well over halfway to the hilt.
“Because a three year old pup has been learning it for three years. Not to mention the fact that I don’t have tusks to talk around that play very heavily into your phonetics. I’m trying Valsh, but your culture is much more complex than I ever expected it to be.”
He cocked an eyebrow at me then turned to go retrieve his dagger from the unfortunate tree. He pulled it free with no more effort than I would have used to pull a dart from a cork dart board. Then Valsh turned back to me and paused like something had bubbled to the surface in his mind. He shook his head and chuckled.
“You’re right, Tole. I’ve been going at this all wrong,” he said as he sat next to me picking up the gourd of pineapple hooch and taking a long pull at it. He passed it over to me and continued, “I’ve been trying to teach you a lifetime of orc behavior, how to be an orc, and that’s just not gonna happen. I should be teaching you how to be a human living among orcs. Forgive my foolishness my friend. Let’s start again.”
This time we skipped language lessons altogether. Instead Valsh focused on helping me understand the hierarchy of the tribe. He taught me who I can make eye contact with and who to defer to. Most importantly he taught me who to fight back against and who could hit me unchallenged. Oh and hitting in orc culture is done A LOT! They hit like humans shake hands. The harder you hit, the more respect you’re showing. Kind of the firmer the handshake the more of a challenge it is to squeeze back. A gentle tap on the forehead is the biggest insult you can give an orc warrior. It tells them that you don’t think they’re worth fighting, and there is no greater insult than that. With my relatively small size, I’m not sure that even full out I could hit hard enough to NOT insult them, and I said as much to Valsh.
“Never thought of that. Better test it out. Hit me,” he said and stuck out his chin with a grin on his face.
I fully intended to knock that smirk right the hell off of his ugly mug. All I managed to do was sprain my wrist and probably break a damned bone in my hand.
“Holy shit Valsh!” I yelled at him while cradling my swelling hand. “Is your head made out of a big damned rock or something? It felt like I just punched the side of a mountain. Did your head even fucking move?”
“Orc skulls are tough. Have to be to take the beatings we give them. You’re right though. You can’t hit hard enough to honor a warrior. Hell, you’d probably piss off a pup. Not your fault. You just don’t have the size to put enough behind a punch. I’ll have to give this some thought,” he said and plopped his big green ass back down on the stump he used for a chair. “Give me your hand and I’ll see if anything’s broken.”
A quick check revealed a broken bone in the wrist and two broken fingers. Luckily it was on the arm opposite the rune work, so Valsh was able to knit the bones with magic. Oh and by the way that fucking hurts! There’s a reason we heal at the rate we do. Having that process forcibly sped up is not natural, and the body will let you know what it thinks of the whole concept in no uncertain terms. Basically it kind of felt like sticking my hand into a blow torch. It burned like a sonofabitch!
“”Grah’ahkt!” Valsh said around a laugh when I pulled my hand back when he first started. I found out later that’s orcish for wimp, wuss, pussy, sissy, and every other invective we use to call a person’s toughness into question all rolled into one. I stared him dead in the eye and let him continue. I was determined not to flinch again…I failed. He laughed at me the whole time. Asshole.
After Valsh was done with my hand we hunted for some game for lunch. Turns out most everything on this world is compatible with my digestive system which was lucky for me because I ran out of The stuff I brought with me from The Bar about a day after Valsh did my first tattoo. Healing makes me hungry. We managed to bring down what looked a lot like a squirrel except it was the size of Labrador. Good eating though when cooked over an open fire with a glaze made from that pineapple hooch Valsh seemed to have an endless supply of.
We were eating lunch and a thought came to me. “What if I pick up an equalizer, like say a log or a rock and clock them with that? Would that satisfy their honor? I mean, I’m half your size. Surely a reasonable warrior wouldn’t want to squash me for trying to even the odds.”
“No,” he said while licking some juice from his fingers that had run down from the rib he was gnawing on. “The minute you use any kind of weapon the fight moves from ceremonial to active combat. Do you want to start a real fight and go toe-to-toe with a full orc warrior? You’d be dead in less than a minute…if it took that long.”
“Well shit,” I said taking a drink from my gourd. “I’m just trying to help man. You don’t have to be a jerk…wait a minute. I’m not coming to your people as a warrior. I’m coming as a scout and a spy. How does your culture handle outsiders who aren’t warriors? Surely you wouldn’t treat say an artisan who crafts clothing the same way you’d treat a warrior, right?”
Valsh paused with his gourd half-way to his maw and pondered my question. After about thirty seconds he slammed it to the table and burst out into that raucous laughter of his saying, “Tole, I swear you are really sent by the gods and one devious bastard to boot. I can bring you into the village under my honor. I’ll have to take your punches and return them, but hell that’s nothing new. I get greeted and challenged on a regular basis. It will also allow me to take any fallout if you screw up on protocol…Yes, that will work.”
We settled back and ate the rest of our lunch in silence. I have to admit Valsh was one hell of a cook, and the foods that his jungle world provided were like nothing I’d ever seen before. In addition to the dozens of species of animal that teemed in the jungle around us, there was also a wide variety of fruits, berries, roots, and herbs that Valsh knew and used. Some of it was medicinal and some was food. In spite of my failed lessons in orcish culture I did learn what I could and could not eat. I also learned some new poisons, their antidotes (when there was one), and some medicinal herbs for pain and infection. The longer I am here the more I like this place.
Probably my favorite part of being on Orta’ahn is that you have to be on your guard constantly. Total situational awareness is a way of life. Everything, and I mean everything, on this world is designed to kill something. It’s like Australia back on Terra only dangerous. At any given moment you will hear the death scream of something in the jungle that wasn’t paying attention. It’s an amazing place. I spent all of my spare time exploring and sharpening my skills at just staying alive. For a killer like me this felt like home. Maybe I’ll retire here.
I was brought out of my reverie by the deep guttural belch that signals Valsh is finished eating. It is an impressive sound to behold and usually results in the flight of all small wildlife from our immediate vicinity. It makes me laugh every time he does it. I know it’s immature, but that doesn’t make it any less funny. Plus, sometimes I think he just does it because it makes me laugh like an idiot.
We spent some time cleaning up the camp from the meal. There really weren’t any dishes to speak of. Valsh served all of the food on these big leaves and everything was eaten with our fingers. Basically we just took the leaves out away from camp or burned them in the campfire and then washed our hands. Any leftover food was thrown far out into the jungle for scavengers as a way to give thanks back to the jungle for providing for our needs. Simple and efficient like everything else he does.
“I think tomorrow we will return to my village,” Valsh said while hurling the last rib bone from his lunch out into the underbrush. “With this last issue sorted out, I think it will be relatively safe for you in our village. Besides you can’t do what I brought you here to do if we never get you near the War Leader. I guess the last thing we need to decide is the way you will kill him. I’m not going to tell you how to do your job. It just has to be a mystery. If my people think for a second that a rival tribe is responsible, a war is inevitable. I am trying to avoid more useless orc death not cause it.”
“I am already working on a plan for it Valsh,” I said with a grin. “I just need to scout the village to finalize how it will be done. Your people will never see it coming, and they will never know how it was done. Like you said I am a devious bastard, and I’m ungodly sneaky to boot. He will die in his bed in a hut surrounded by his guards. No one will see me come and no one will see me leave. As far as your village is concerned I will be in the mountains on a scouting mission gathering information about the Green Mountain Tribe. I can’t promise that it won’t be messy though. If you want it to look like he angered your gods, then I will make it look like an angry god took out his wrath on your War Leader.”
We spent the rest of that afternoon polishing up on my jungle survival skills. Learning things like how to not get lost in the dark, how to identify direction when you can’t see the sun, and what tracks and signs to watch for to be alert to predators in the area. I was going to have to hide out and survive in the jungle for a few days on my own to complete the illusion that I was out scouting and spying. I wanted to be sure I made it back alive to collect the rest of my payment from Valsh once the smoke had cleared.
We sat down to eat our evening meal and Valsh turned to me and asked, “Tole, I’ve got a concern. You are planning to face my War Leader alone in his home correct?”
“I see. Tell me this then. How are you not going to die? Even if you manage to come upon him sleeping, orcs do not die easily. He will come awake and fight back and then you will die,” he said with something that almost sounded like worry in his voice. Not for me of course, but for the success of his mission.
It wasn’t an insult, just a simple statement of fact, and a valid statement at that. I held up one finger to him to let him know I needed a second. I got up from the table and went into the hut to where I’d been sleeping for the last week or so. I reached under the cot I was using for a bed and pulled out a rough sack made of what felt like burlap. I walked over and dropped it on the ground beside Valsh. The vipers inside hissed their displeasure.
“WHAT IN THE NAME OF…” Valsh exclaimed as he backed away. “Are those leaf vipers?!?”
“They are, and I’ve been milking their venom for the past few days. I think I have enough to make an effective poison. I will inject it into his neck while he sleeps. The neurotoxin should paralyze him and make it very easy for me to do my work. He will be dead in less than a minute…if it even takes that long,” I finished looking Valsh in the eye with a finality that told him this is what I do and why he hired me.
“You are crazy aren’t you?” he asked with a tone in his voice I don’t think he was used to making. “The gods sent you, so I will not doubt in their wisdom. I will, however, start sleeping with one eye open.”
“Just make good on the promised payment and you have nothing to worry about,” I assured him. With that I gathered up my sack of snakes and headed to bed. “Better hit the sack friend. Tomorrow starts the next part of this adventure. Get some rest.” I shook the sack making the vipers hiss one more time. I laughed softly and went to bed.