LORD OF THE TATTERED BANNER



LORD OF THE TATTERED BANNER, by Kristopher Reisz:

By the time they took Orsten Keep, the pretender had already escaped over the mountains with half her army. After the battle, the smell of blood and smoke lingered. It was a strangely fertile smell, like fresh-tilled earth.

Fengr Tall-As-A-Mounted-Man felt his war-rage cool, leaving him with the familiar, limb-trembling exhaustion. He couldn’t rest, though. The plunder would be picked clean within an hour. Every soldier who could still walk trudged through the battlefield harvesting jewelry, gold teeth, and bits of nice leatherwork.

Fengr followed the northern wall with Pig-Ugly, ensign of the Brazen Tusks. Frost gave the churned mud the dull sheen of metal. A knight lay in the slurry, his helmet torn off and most of his face gone with it. He wore an amulet bearing the pretender’s sign — a pelican in her piety, piercing her own breast and feeding the blood to her chicks. The amulet was silver, the blood drops rubies.

“Ca . . . Captain?”

The white-tooth orc slumped behind the knight’s dead horse. The sword pierced his belly and came out the other side. “I came on him like a summer storm, captain,” he chuckled. “Knocked him right off his stupid horse. I earned my brass.”

Pig-Ugly glanced at the white-tooth, then at Fengr, silently shaking his head. Fengr turned away. Tugging the amulet loose, he tried to remember the white-tooth’s name. “You fought bravely, soldier.”

Blood crusted the white-tooth’s hands. He motioned to the sword. “I didn’t pull it out. You told us . . . let the surgeons do it.”

Walking over, Fengr looked at how the white-tooth’s toes pointed toward each other. He kicked the white-tooth’s leg, but the paralyzed orc didn’t flinch. “The surgeons can’t do anything for you. And we can’t carry you on the campaign.” Kneeling, Fengr pulled a thick-bladed knife from his belt. “You fought bravely. May you meet the strigidæ with equal courage.”

“Wait!” The white-tooth grabbed Fengr’s wrist. “Captain, please, take me to the surgeons. Maybe they can fix me. If . . . if not, I’ll go back to the mines. Captain, please, please.”

Fengr glanced over his shoulder. The surgeon-priests were in the keep. By the time they hauled him up there and came back, the plundering would be done. Fengr shook his head. “Better to die on the battlefield like a true orc than waste away in some mine.”

“No! I don’t — ” The white-tooth struggled, but Pig-Ugly grabbed his wrists. Forcing the white-tooth’s chin up, Fengr delivered the coup de grâce. As the blood pumped down, the white-tooth wheezed, “You basta . . .” then grew still.

“These white-teeth from Low Haven aren’t worth the meat we’re feeding them,” Pig-Ugly said. Fengr grunted, cutting the straps off the knight’s breastplate. The tabard underneath bore a noble crest: a red and yellow sun. “Still, he bagged us another lord. That’s something.”

Cutting the tabard off, Fengr tossed it to Pig-Ugly. Pig-Ugly glanced past Fangr. “Lord Cal’s coming.”

The crown prince’s aide-de-camp barreled up on his gray destrier, its fetlocks slathered with mud. Lord Cal’s paige and another human rode behind him. “Fengr, his highness has need of you. Come.”

Fengr stood. He spoke carefully. “But my lord, the pillaging. The Brazen Tusks have the right of plunder, given to us by the crown prince him — ”

Lord Cal lashed out with his rod of office, striking Fengr across the shoulder. “You think you can question a lord because you’re the crown prince’s favorite pet? I said to come with me.”

Dropping his eyes, Fengr grumbled, “I forget my place, lord.”

Lord Cal glared at him for a few seconds more, then turned his horse. “Quickly. Come.”

Leaving his ensign to the loot, Fengr followed Lord Cal past human companies of footmen and archers. Some men looked up and shied away. They passed a pair of drudge orcs chained to a baggage cart too. The drudges never glanced up, though, thinking only of their next bite of bread or wink of sleep.

The crown prince and his favored commanders stood outside thekeep’s chapel. Shimmering with rings and silks, clutching gold cups, they’d been drinking and plundering Duke Orsten’s apartments. They had pink-cheeked women with them, the duke’s maids or lesser nieces. These were war plunder too.

Despite the cups and gold and women, the commanders wore long faces. As Fengr approached, one of them murmured to another, “. . . the pretender has stooped to, we must — ” He stopped as the shadow of Fengr spread over him. A woman let out a choking gasp. That made the crown prince laugh. “Hush now, hush. Fengr doesn’t eat anybody until Itell him to.”

Fengr sank to one knee. His highness boomed, “Fengr Unquenchable, Fengr Tall-As-A-Mounted-Man! Your orcs fought bravely today.”

“The Brazen Tusks live to earn you glory and crush the enemies of your illuminated father.”

The crown prince nodded. “Rise. Come and tell me whatyou make of this.” He led them into the chapel. The windows were covered with stiffened cloth, and shadows held the reek of old blood. The crown prince yanked one of the cloths back. Hard-angled light fell on scarred stone walls. Mosaics of the God-Who-Sacrificed-Himself-To-Himself had been chiseled away. His face was gone, but Fengr could still see his out-stretched hands. In the god’s place, images of strigidæ were scratched into the stone: spear-sharp beaks and round, watching eyes gazing down upon the altar.

Once, both orcs and humans offered sacrifices to the strigidæ, the lords of the hunt and high mountains. Then the God-Who-Sacrificed-Himself-To-Himself came, and men turned away from the strigidæ. Some turned back, though, when their own god didn’t give them what they craved.

“These are their names, yes?” The crown prince pointed to the sigils scratched below each face. “Which ones are they?”

Fengr shook his head. “I don’t know, your highness. The Brazen Tusks don’t follow the strigidæ. We live to earn you glory and crush the enemies of your illuminated — ”

“Yes, yes, but when you were young, your mother taught you these things, didn’t she?”

“I was brought to the arena when I was young, your highness. From then, I only learned to fight.” And what little Fengr did learn before then, he knew it best to keep to himself.

The crown prince flung his goblet. Grabbing Fengr’s brass-sheathed tusk, he tilted the orc’s eyes down to meet his own. “Duke Orsten was a lack-wit. He didn’t come to this by himself; one of the orcs in this castle showed him the rituals, the names of those . . . things. Find out which one.”

“I will, your highness. I swear it.”

Because orcs had rejected the God-Who-Sacrificed-Himself-To-Himself, the god gave humans dominion over orcs. Fengr’s kind were to be kept as slaves for ten thousand upon ten thousand generations, serving humans just as humans served their self-slaughtering god. Many orcs toiled in Duke Orsten’s tin mines, but less than a dozen worked in Orsten Keep itself, most as stable-drudges and strappers. Lord Cal and his men herded the drudges into the chapel where Fengr grilled them. In man’s language, he demanded, “Who defiled this holy place? Which one of you repaid your master’s kindness with heresy?” In the old tongue the commanders didn’t know, Fengr said, “I’m tired. I’m hungry. Maybe I’ll just pick one of you at random. You think these humans would care? Tell me who it was before my patience ends.”

The drudge orcs stood in a silent group, squeezed between Fengr’s shout and the sarcophagi the ancient Dukes Orsten. Except they didn’t act like drudges. Standing silent and still while Fengr screamed, they kept exchanging glances, trying to work something out between themselves.

Fengr didn’t have the patience for whatever game they were playing. Snatching a son away from his mother, Fengr heaved him off his feet. “Was it this one?” The boy wailed and kicked. His mother’s cry bounced offthe chapel stones. The others kept glancing around. “Confess, boy!” Pulling the knife from his belt, Fengr sawed into the boy’s ear. The child’s scream sharpened to a teakettle whistle. Blood dribbled over Fengr’s hand. Suddenly every eye darted toward an ancient dam.

Her skin was knobbed and warted. One tusk had been torn out. She clutched a charm against her chest — a pouch filled with fur and mouse bones. Fengr’s mother once had a charm like that, a gift from the strigidæ.

Fengr dropped the boy, his ear dangling by a strip of cartilage, and reached for the withered dam. Just as he touched her, another orc yelled, “It was me! I confess!”

Fengr turned. The other orc had dropped to his knees and crawled toward the crown prince. “I — I taught Duke Orsten the names of the strigidæ. I taught him the ritual sacrif — ”

The crown prince kicked him away. “Lord Cal, bind him. Have this defiled place torn down with him in it.”

The drudge whimpered in the dust. Fengr glanced at the old dam clutching her charm. When Fengr had been scared at night, his mother let him hold the leather pouch. She told him how she’d met the strigidæ while fetching water for their master.

If the orc who’d confessed wanted to die in the dam’s place, what did it cost Fengr? As long as an orc died, the crown prince was happy.

“Fengr, your soldiers fought bravely today, brave as any man.” The crown prince shook Fengr’s tusk playfully again. “Tomorrow, go to the mines and refill your ranks. We can’t stay here long. We must chase the pretender to ground before winter comes.”

“Yes, your highness.”

“In the meantime, take a cask of Duke Orsten’s wine to your soldiers. And this one is for you.” Pulling a girl from Lord Elmore’s grip, he handed her off to Fengr. The girl was thick hipped and plump breasted. Taking her by the trembling arm, Fengr bowed. “Your generosity is beyond all measure, your highness.”

 

* * *

 

In their camp, the Brazen Tusks gambled their loot. Fengr staked the knight’s amulet against rings and foreign coins, even a false eye carved from lapis lazuli. The dice proved his boon companions, coming up drakes every time he needed them most.

Pig-Ugly knotted the knight’s red-and-yellow-sun tabard onto the banner-pole, along with the crests of two other noble houses. The Brazen Tusks, not led by any lord, weren’t allowed to fly a true banner. Instead, the orcs marched into battle under the tattered, slashed, and blood-blackened colors of every lord they killed.

They drank Duke Orsten’s wine and watched the white-teeth who’d proved themselves in the day’s battle get their tusks sheathed in brass. Some howled as Grun hammered the nails in, others roared and laughed. It was a good show either way.

Sometime past midnight, there was a scream of stone. Fengr felt the earth shudder as the chapel was pulled down. Soon after, he tired of dice and carried his double handful of winnings to his tent where the human girl waited.

Her name was Isolde. She trembled when Fengr touched her, but she accepted the cup a wine he gave her and let him slip rings onto her fingers. She said, “The emperor must truly be great that even his slaves drink wine and drip with plunder.”

Fengr laughed. “Not all slaves. Only the Brazen Tusks. We eat beef every day like lords. Even the emperor’s human soldiers can’t claim that.”

“He honors orcs above men?”

Fengr nodded as he unhooked Isolde’s dress. “Because we break the people’s love for the pretender.”

The pretender’s symbol was a pelican in her piety, stabbing her breast to feed her chicks. And the pretender herself inspired that sort of self-slaughter. She rode into a town, spoke to the humans, touched their hands, and they rose against the emperor. Peasants and noble lords gave their blood for nothing but her words. The emperor’s highest priests declared her power came from witchcraft, that strigidæ rode her at night, that her nether parts had teeth. But their pronouncements fell as harmless as dust.

After the loss the Chalk Coast cities, the crown prince raised the Brazen Tusks. He pulled the biggest, worst orcs up from the mines and gladiator arenas. They didn’t justkill rebellious soldiers. They filled their towns with fire. They filled their children’s sleep with nightmares, their wives’ bellies with bastards. Their sworn duty was to slaughter, terrify, and show everyone that the pretender couldn’t save them.

The crown prince made sure that stories of the Brazen Tusks swept before the army like a herald. Laying with Isolde in the dark, Fengr asked if stories of him had reached Orsten Keep ahead of the crown prince’s host. He took great pleasure in hearing tales about himself. The girl nodded. “Even before the duke cast his lot with Princess . . . with the pretender. People said the Brazen Tusks were cannibals, that arrows couldn’t harm you. It was why the duchess begged Duke Orsten not to join with the rebellion, why the duke locked her in the oubliette.”

“Your own people heard these stories as well, Fengr.” The withered dam slipped into the tent. “Of the Brazen Tusks marching below their tattered banner. Of the scores of men you have slaughtered in battle.”

Three talon-tipped rings flashed in the moonlight — two on her fingers, one on her thumb. The dam also wore a peaked crown of feathers. These emblems meant she spoke for the strigidæ. Fengr snapped at Isolde to find him more wine. Once the girl had hurried from the tent, he told the dam, “If the lords see you dressed like that, they’ll cut your throat. I saved you once; I won’t save you again.”

“You’ll save us all, Fengr. Your people, your gods, scream for a champion.”

“I live to win glory for the crown prince, nothing more.” Fengr wanted her gone; the dam talked too loosely of rebellion. But the magic she might posses made him afraid to send her away.

“The strigidæ have sent me dreams. They say Fengr Tall-As-A-Mounted-Man will become king of all orcs. We will be free once again, and we will flay the meat and smash the bones of those who enslaved us. King Fengr, we of Orsten Keep stand ready to rise with you.”

Fengr snorted. “I came to crush the enemies of the emperor. I came because Duke Orsten sided with the pretender, that’s all.”

She chuckled. “But who convinced Duke Orsten to side with the pretender in the first place, hmm? I had to bring you here somehow, Fengr. We cannot expect the strigidæ to do everything for us.”

He stared at her. “You’re mad.”

The dam said, “I am here to help your rebellion, to do whatever is needed.”

“I’m not — there is no rebellion!” Fengr snarled, low and angry. “Leave or I’ll slit your throat myself.”

Just then, Isolde reappeared with more wine. The dam said, “You will lead us. The strigidæ do not lie,” and slipped out into the night.

 

* * *

 

The host stayed at Orsten Keep while the priests flogged themselves bloody and searched their dreams for signs of the pretender. They had to chase her down soon, before winter made the mountains impassable.

While they waited for visions from the priests, Fengr refilled his ranks with orcs from Duke Orsten’s mines. The Brazen Tusks drilled every day and kept their gear always ready to march. The dam never returned to their camp, and for that, Fengr was glad. He told no one about what she’d told him. Her promises had led Duke Orsten to his doom. Fengr would not follow.

Finally tiring of the priests’ too-vague dreams, the crown prince began flogging them himself until their backs were like raw sides of beef — meat and ribs and connective tissue exposed. At last, after days of infection and delirium, one holy brother howled about seven great strigidæ emerging from stone. Locals recognized the place as the Gorge of the Parliament, a narrow defile high in the mountains. There, ancient hands had carved towering statues of the strigidæ into the cliff face. There, they would find the pretender’s host.

The priest gifted by the vision died a few hours later. The crown prince declared him a saint and ordered that the new chapel to be built at Orsten Keep bear his name. Commanders consulted their maps and rangers, and the order went out to strike camp. By dawn, the army was on foot and hoof once again. Entering the mountains, winter pulled out her knives. Lords shivered inside furs. Camp followers shivered in wool stuffed with grass. The orcs plodded along, though, skin thick enough to ignore the slashing wind, splayed toes gripping the ice.

On the fourth night, a drudge orc pulling one of the crown prince’s supply wagons escaped. Three human soldiers gave chase, but quickly turned back in the face of the cold and dark and steep mountain terrain. Furious, the crown prince had all three of them chained to the supply wagon in the orc’s place.

The host crawled up the mountain like an iron-clad millipede. Wagons got stuck, and horses broke their legs. A gang of drudge orcs and human prisoners were put to work laying down planed boards for the horses and baggage train. It was endless, exhausting work, and they could never move fast enough for the lords. Every day, more collapsed into the snow and were left behind.

On the sixth day after leaving Orsten Keep, Fengr marched along — letting his mind go numb, legs moving with no more thought than a waterwheel — when one of the white-teeth from Duke Orsten’s mines edged up to him. He touched Fengr’s elbow and whispered, “When it is time, what will the signal be?”

Fengr turned. “Huh?”

The white-tooth, Nordy, leaned close. “When the orcs rise? What is your plan? How will we know it’s time?”

Fengr snatched him by his throat. “What do you mean ‘rise?’”

Nordy sputtered. “Th . . . the dam. She says the portents have been good since we entered the mountains.”

“The dam? She’s with us?”

Nordy nodded, his eyes starting to bulge. “In . . . baggage train. Yesterday, the strigidæ . . . a charm. The bones inside told her . . .”

The other Brazen Tusks looked over. Pig-Ugly trotted over. “Fengr? What’s he done?”

Fengr ignored him. “You orcs from the mines, how many of you believe the dam?”

“All of us . . . why we . . . volun . . . teer.”

“Fengr?” Pig-Ugly asked again.

Fengr smashed Nodry’s nose, letting the blood pour down. “Tell the others I am not your king. Tell them the next one who speaks of it, I will pull out his tongue. A soldier doesn’t need a tongue to fight.”

Glancing up, he barked at the Brazen Tusks to keep marching. Nordy fell in with the others, pressing a handful of snow against his broken nose. Fengr walked back along the column toward the baggage train. His thick-bladed knife pressed against his skin with every step. The blade felt terribly cold. But Fengr didn’t know if he would use it yet.

He found the dam yoked to one of the priest-surgeons’ carts. It was filled with unguents and lancets for bloodletting. Bending to her task, she pulled the cart through thick mud.

“You,” Fengr snarled. “What are you doing here?”

The dam had to catch her breath before she could speak. “Your Lord Cal pressed another of ours to this job, a mother of young babes. I took this yoke for her.”

“You will die for her.”

The woman shrugged. “I will die for the young who need their mother. I will die for the future of our people. What will you die for, Fengr?”

Fengr ignored the question. “Stop telling orcs I’ll lead them in rebellion. This talk will earn us both slit throats if it reaches the lords.”

“But don’t you see? The strigidæ are leading you to the Gorge of the Parliament.” Straining against the weight of the cart, she spoke in grunts. “We made sacrifices to the strigidæ there. When we were free. Here, on top of the world.”

“When we were free. An age long past.”

“An age that will come again, Fengr. You must sacrifice the human army to the strigidæ. Offer them the blood of the crown prince.”

“You’re mad.”

“Madness is bowing and trembling before a pack of squealing pink piglets. Look at how the humans shiver. Watch how they die from the cold. Listen to me, King Fengr, we have allies now. I’ve sent an orc to seek out Princess Eadwynn.”

Fengr tensed and glanced around. Saying the pretender’s name out loud, admitting her royal lineage, would get an orc whipped. Only after he saw nobody had overheard did Fengr let himself think about what the dam had just said. “Seek her out? The drudge that escaped, you sent him to find the pretender at the Gorge of the Parliament?”

The dam chuckled merrily. “They know we are coming. They will hide close by and wait. Look down here, King Fengr.” Tucked above the cart’s axle, the dam had ferreted a tight bundle of oil-soaked rags. “When the moment is right, call out to me and I will light the rags. That will be the signal to the princess and her army to attack. We will be free! Other orcs will hear about you, Fengr Tall-As-A-Mounted-Man, slayer of princes, lord of the tattered banner. They’ll rise up to join you. I’ve seen it in my dreams!”

Fengr grabbed her, shoved his face close to hers. “Your dreams are lies. After Duke Orsten allied himself with the pretender, how many orcs did she free from his mines?”

The dam pursed her lips and didn’t answer.

“I have been to the cities she takes over. Humans are free, but orcs remain slaves. The pretender holds to the human’s covenant with the God-Who-Sacrificed-Himself-To-Himself to keep orcs as chattel.”

“Then you will bargain with her. Agree to fight on her side if she frees orcs as well, gives us the mountains as our ancestral home. Are you mad enough to fight for those who locked your people in chains rather than fight for their freedom?”

Fengr snorted. “Fight for the crown prince, fight for the pretender, fight for you; seems I’ll spend my life fighting no matter what. At least the crown prince offers wine and whores for the between-times. What do you offer? Cold and hunger on a miserable mountaintop?”

Hoofbeats made Fengr turn. Lord Cal rode up, coming to see why the baggage train had halted. “Fengr, what’s all this?” he demanded.

“Nothing, lord,” Fengr said automatically. “This orc slipped in the mud.” The dam annoyed him, but Lord Cal made Fengr smolder with hate. He wasn’t about to offer Cal the fame of quashing a rebellion against the throne.

Lord Cal grunted. “Get back up with your soldiers. We’re nearing the gorge.”

Fengr hurried back up the column. Behind him, he heard the thud of Lord Cal’s rod striking the dam. “Hold the train up again, and I’ll hang you as a warning to the others,” the aide-de-camp snarled. “We’ve left fine warhorses to die out here; you think there’d be any ado about an old drudge?”

Fengr didn’t look back. He rejoined the Brazen Tusks at the head of the column. Within an hour, scouts returned from the Gorge of the Parliament. Word quickly spread through the army: the pretender had been there, but her camp had been hastily abandoned. Fengr chuckled to himself. It seemed the mad dam could even get the pretender to dance on her strings. No wonder she seemed so certain Fengr would fight for her.

It took another day for the army to reach the gorge. Ages of snowmelt had created a curved throat of stone. The walls rose up, shielding the gorge from the worst of the wind and cold. A narrow meadow of tough grass and blood-purple flowers grew there. As they marched, soldiers pulled off caps and loosened cloaks.

The shlu-shluff of footsteps and the jangle of tack echoed up the throat. The sound came back down warped and corroded. Then one of the Brazen Tusks gasped, “The Parliament! Look.”

Where the gorge widened, the seven strigidæ stood in cliff-face niches. The statues were dizzyingly tall. Wings folded to their bodies, they stared down at the Brazen Tusks passing by their feet. The orcs stared back up, mouths dangling open. A few of the white-teeth stopped dead to stare at their stone gods. Fengr snapped, “Eyes front! Bushwhackers could be anywhere.”

Fengr kept his soldiers in formation. He refused to look at the giant statues himself, keeping his eyes peeled for signs of an ambush. The pretender’s host had left horses butchered for meat and bodies hastily buried under cairns of creek stones.

“They’re starving, eating their horses,” Pig-Ugly said, prodding one of the corpses with his axe. “If we catch them soon, it won’t even be a fight.”

The commanders sent scouts to search every ridge and canyon east of the gorge. Only Fengr and the dam knew the pretender hid somewhere close-by, desperately waiting for a signal that would never come. As night fell, Fengr ordered his men to keep their weapons at hand; they might muster out any minute.

It was a bad night. Soldiers grumbled about cold and dwindling stores. They were anxious for the chase to be done. All through camp, they heard the crown prince screaming and throwing things around the command tent. When Lord Longlane’s paige said something foolish, his highness plucked out the boy’s eye.

Playing dice below the stone strigidæ, Fengr ran his thumb across the pelican amulet he’d pulled off the dead knight. The knight had been wealthy. He’d likely had land and slaves. Why did he fight and die for the pretender’s words? Fengr didn’t know, but the dam insisted he would do the same himself: give up meat and mead just to win other orcs a future Fengr would never enjoy himself.

It was madness or maybe witchcraft. Fengr remembered the orc in the chapel, throwing himself at the crown prince’s feet. Maybe the dam knew the same magic the pretender knew to sully minds, to make orcs love her even though she offered nothing but death. Fengr resolved to avoid her. He would keep the white-teeth like Nordy away from her too.

But as he gambled and lost, Fengr felt the stone strigidæ watching him in the dark. The echoes through the gorge started to sound like murmurs from above. Maybe the dam’s visions were right — Fengr had been destined to be a hero — but something had gone wrong.

When Fengr was four years old, one of his master’s foxhounds bit him. Fengr snatched the dog by its ear and kicked it to death. Instead of beating him, his master took Fengr away from his mother and sold him to the local noble to be trained as a gladiator. In the arena, Fengr Tall-As-A-Mounted-Man had fought and slaughtered fellow orcs while humans cheered and threw silver coins.

Maybe if he’d stayed with his mother and learned the secrets of the strigidæ, he would be different. Maybe if he’d ever learned anything besides killing, Fengr would be the hero the dam and the strigidæ thought he was.

The maybes bit at him like lice. But every maybe in the world didn’t tip the scales against one sword. For a soldier, a slave — for an orc — it was better to deal with what was, snatch what he could from this life and do what it took to survive. Let the bards worry about what might have been.

Dropping the amulet into the circle, Fengr took the dice. He couldn’t keep his thoughts on the game, though. He lost the amulet. Trying to win it back, Fengr put up Isolde but lost her to Nir. After that, Fengr stomped off to his tent where the statues couldn’t see him.

He had troubled dreams mazed with steep defiles and the strigidæ crying huhuu at his back. He awoke and reached for the girl, then remembered she wasn’t his anymore. Pushing off his furs, Fengr stumbled out into cold, cobalt dawn. Pig-Ugly sat by a low fire, tightening the straps on his armor.

A witch had cursed Pig-Ugly’s mother when she was pregnant, causing Pig-Ugly to curdle in her stomach. He’d been a breech birth. His mouth was tilted nearly sideways and bony growths sprouted from his jaw and chest. The night he was born, his father left Pig-Ugly on a mountaintop. “I died for a couple days but got bored. So I walked back home and kicked that piker’s ass.” Pig-Ugly always laughed loudest when telling that story. Fengr didn’t know the truth, just that his ensign only answered to “Pig-Ugly,” refusing to let his family name slip between his crooked lips.

“Any word from the scouts?” Fengr asked, sitting down. A pot of beef grease sat by the fire. Fengr smeared some on a hunk of bread.

“No.” Pig-Ugly glanced up. “You look worse than a Cilian paige’s buggered asshole.”

“Grim dreams.”

“About the coming battle?”

Fengr shook his head and ate even though he wasn’t hungry.

“Aboutleading all orcs to glorious freedom?”

Fengr glared. Pig-Ugly laughed. The way his mouth twisted, his laugh always came as a gurgle.

“Quiet!” Fengr hissed. “If the lords — ”

“The lords are drunk and tucked in with their whores.”

“Where did you hear?”

“The white-teeth from Orsten all believe it. Some of the others are starting to think it’s true too. At least, they wish it was. Last night, you were so insistent they keep their weapons handy, they were convinced it would come any minute. After you went to sleep, a couple of them asked me what I thought.”

“And?”

“I told them you were the biggest bastard I’d ever met. Told them you don’t have any loftier goals than drinking, whoring, and chopping down any fool standing between you and the first two. I told them you were a pitiless killer and a passable commander, but I’d wager on Lord Cal becoming king of all orcs before you.”

Fengr nodded. “My thanks.”

As the sun rose, soldiers sharpened weapons and adjusted their armor. Others drank, gambled, or fought. Fengr hoped the battle came soon. Some slaughter and pillagingwould keep the orcs from dreaming of rebellion. In the meantime, Fengr patrolled the Brazen Tusks’ camp. He snarled and struck out at any knot of soldiers becoming too relaxed. “Keep that gear ready! When the horn sounds, we have two blasts to muster in! If you can’t find your axe in that time, your helmet, it’s gone.” Fengr kicked the white-tooth’s helmet across the grounds. “You fight without it.”

A clang of metal against stone shivered across the gorge, making Fengr swing around. It wasn’t the pretender attacking, though, just a trio of human spearmen clustered at the base of one of the strigidæ statues. They stabbed at it with knives, chipping off souvenirs. Fengr went back to yelling about gear, tossing a white-tooth’s shield in the mud.

“Uh, commander?” Pig-Ugly touched Fengr’s arm and motioned to where the humans continued hacking at the statue. The white-tooth Nordy strode up behind them.

“Stop!” Nordy snapped. “These statues are sacred.”

The humans were drunk, clinging to one another to stay upright. They laughed at Nordy and made ape sounds. One of the three, chubby as a piglet, bellowed, “Piss on you, orc. Piss on your filthy bird-gods.” Unlacing his trousers, he pulled out his manhood. Fengr started running, but it happened too quickly. Nordy snatched the spearman up and swung him against the statue. There was a wet crunch. The piglet’shead split like rotten wood. Orcs and humans rushed toward the commotion. There was yelling, cursing, then the clamor of horses through the low purple heather. Lord Cal’s paige and a knight Fengr didn’t know charged up, swords drawn. Some infantrymen had to dive out of the way.

“Kneel, orc! Kneel!”

Nordy dropped the dead soldier. “You think you are mighty? We will grind your bones! We will — !”

They slashed at him with their swords. They kept their horses moving in different directions so Nordy couldn’t see both of them at once — like dogs baiting a bear. The paige lost his blade between Nordy’s ribs. Nordy took a trembling step, crumpled to his knees, but kept snarling. “You can’t keep us in chains. You can’t piss on — ” he struggled for breath, finding Fengr in the crowd. “We must — Must rise! Our moment is — !”

The knight dealt the final blow, dropping Nordy to the earth beside the fat spearman. Turning, he yelled at the paige to bring Lord Cal.

As the paige galloped off, the knight clutched his sword in one hand and his dagger in the other, ordering the orcs back. His horse whickered and twisted, close to panic.

Fengr slipped away. Instead of returning to the Brazen Tusks’ camp, he headed toward the baggage train. Pig-Ugly followed at his heels. “Where are you going, captain?”

“To kill the dam. Offer her head to the crown prince, and show the drudges and white-teeth I’m not their champion.”

Pig-Ugly sneered. “About time.”

He was right. Fengr should have killed the dam the first time she spoke her mad prophecies. But now Nordy had killed a human, and the crown prince would be hunting for a conspiracy. Fengr was a fool for letting it go on this long.

Entering the curve of carts making up the baggage train, Fengr felt all eyes on him. The thickest knot of orcs was near the surgeon’s cart with its sun-faded red canopy. Fengr moved toward it and saw the dam crouched in the cart’s shadow. She saw him and bellowed, “Fengr!” Slipping on her bladed talon-rings, she spoke for the strigidæ now. “Fengr Unquenchable has come to free us! The colors of every human nation will fly from the Brazen Tusk’s ragged banner!”

The drudges pushed in around Fengr, shouting over one another. “Is this it? Do the Brazen Tusks stand with us? What do we do?”

He shoved them away, trying to reach the dam, but she moved too fast. Running away on bandy legs, she yelled, “King Fengr, Lord of the Tattered Banner, strikes! He will crush all enemies of the orcs! Rise! Rise! Now is the moment we take our freedom!”

Pulling his thick-bladed knife, Fengr tried to catch her, tried to silence her, but the drudges were in bedlam. They grabbed mallets, iron wheel wrenches, heavy cleavers. Panicking humans scrambled out of the clearing, screaming for soldiers. Fengr saw one human snatched by a green hand, his neck snapped back and his cry cut off.

“Rise orcs! Now is your time! Fengr Unquenchable stands with you! The merciless Brazen Tusks stand with you!”

Fengr saw them and halted — Lord Cal led a chevron of soldiers stabbing toward the baggage train. The dam didn’t care. She charged the knights before they could figure out exactly what was happening. Shrieking, she slashed at Lord Cal with her talon-rings. She bloodied man-flesh and horse-flesh until Lord Cal’s stallion bucked and threw him to the ground. One of the other lords bashed the dam in the head, making her drop like a stone. Still, she looked around for Fengr, screaming, “Mighty King Fengr! Avenge me! Avenge your servant!”

Lord Cal pushed himself off the ground, clutching his bleeding thigh. He saw Fengr standing, knife drawn, and shrieked, “Kill him!”

The knight with the bloody mace spurred his horse forward. Fengr tried to scream, No! I serve the crown prince! This is a mistake! But the knight was charging him. He swung his mace, and Fengr barely twisted out of the way, falling to the ground. The knight reared around and lifted his mace for another blow. Fengr did what he had to do to survive the moment. Grabbing the human’s leg, he wrenched him off his horse. The man squirmed like a puppy, grasping for the mace that had fallen out of his hand. Fengr plunged his knife into the knight’s armpit.

Another knight had pulled Lord Cal onto his saddle as the drudges surged around them. Several more foot soldiers were struck, stabbed, kicked, and punched. Seeing they faced a full-flowered revolt, the lords fell back, racing toward the command tents. Fengr stood. The knight he’d killed lay with his mouth open, showing small, square teeth. Pig-Ugly watched the rebellion spreading around them like a grass fire and said, “This is bad, captain.”

Fengr limped over to the dam. She was dying. The mace had crushed her jaw and torn arteries in her neck. Blood spread across her tunic as thick as dye.

“Why did you do that? I am not your hero!”

“Yes, I know.” Her breath sounded like somebody squeezing a wet rag. “But now what choice do you have, Fengr?”

Fengr raised his knife, hungry to kill her, but he realized he couldn’t. He’d murdered a knight. There was no explaining anymore, there was no going back. He had to escape into the mountains. To escape, he needed the drudges to fight with him. To keep the drudges on his side, he couldn’t murder their dam. “This isn’t fate,” he said stubbornly. “I’m not your hero.”

“No. . .” Blood stained her beatific smile pink. “You’re just a big bastard that’s good at killing. That’s what our people need now. But they must also believe you are their chosen champion, Fengr Tall-As-A-Mounted-Man.”

He stared at her. “The strigidæ never sent you dreams about me. You made it all up. Me, the drudges, Duke Orsten, you lied to all of us.”

Her laugh grated like wet sand. “Lies now, but a legend tomorrow. Tomorrow and for ten thousand generations, our people will sing the song of King Fengr, Lord of the Tattered — ”

Fengr walked away, leaving her to die. The subtle witch had pit him against the crown prince. He felt like he was back in the arena, stepping through the gate, ready to kill another orc just because his master ordered him to. At least his master never expected Fengr to be thankful, at least the perfumed goat never tried to gild Fengr’s enslavement with promises of becoming a legend after he died.

“Somebody bring me fire! Quickly!” One of the drudges had a fire-horn. Fengr grabbed it and ran toward the surgeons’ cart.

Fengr didn’t care what orcs said about him after he died. He didn’t care about their freedom. He would fight because he didn’t have any other choice. And the crown prince would fight back because he didn’t have any choice. The pretender, the emperor, Fengr wondered if any of them were truly free. Maybe the whole world was an arena. Maybe the strigidæ and the God-Who-Sacrificed-Himself-To-Himself gathered around, cheering their favorites and tossing silver coins.

But Fengr would let the bards worry about what might be. Reaching the surgeons’ cart, He found the bundle of rags hidden below and set them alight. Then, finding a sledgehammer nearby, he heaved it up. “Hear me, orcs! Hear me!”

The drudges, gathered in small groups, armed with axes and chains and ripped-out cart yokes, looked up. Fengr said, “Our time has come. The Brazen Tusks stand with you, the strigidæ stand with you, but we must strike now. The humans are scattered and scared. Grab any food you can, burn the rest of the supplies. Then we must move to join with the Brazen Tusks. Move, move, move!”

A deafening shout rose up around him, “Hail our king! Hail Fengr Unquenchable!” The drudges snatched barrels of food, set carts ablaze, and killed the last humans cowering on the ground. Pig-Ugly grabbed Fengr’s shoulder and pointed to the burning surgeons’ cart. The oil-soaked rags had some magic in them, and a dense finger of green smoke rose high above the gorge. “A signal?” Pig-Ugly asked.

“The pretender lies nearby. She’ll attack the crown prince from the east.”

“We’re in alliance with the pretender?”

“She thinks so, but this rabble won’t last long inan honest battle. The pretender attacks the crown prince from the east. While they’re busy slaughtering each other, we retreat west, as high up into the mountains as we can go. We harry whichever side is the victor, keep them trapped up here without supplies. If these drudges can survive a week, all the humans will die.” And curse the dam, curse the strigidæ, but it felt delicious to say. Fengr could get drunk on the words alone. “All humans die.”

Pig-Ugly gave his gurgling laugh. “Fengr, you’re the biggest bastard I’ve ever met.”

Fengr nodded. He was just a big, mean bastard who was good at killing. But as the ragged phalanx of drudges surged forward — many straight into the blades and maces of the on-coming knights — they drove one another on by screaming his name. “Strike! Strike for Fengr Unquenchable! Strike for Fengr your king!”


 

 


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