The TemperingShannon Lee Martin / Fantasy / Horror
by Shannon Lee Martin
Copyright 2013 Shannon Lee Martin
The dungeons of King Grathulus III hadn't changed much since Groth had last been an unwilling guest. The only noticeable differences were the increased number of rats and declined quality of the rancid daily gruel. Groth was naturally curious and more than a bit afraid of the tortures they would surely inflict upon him for escaping his last visit; he was certain they meant to make an example of him, for why else had they spared only his life after raiding his village? It was rare indeed that anyone was excluded from being put to the sword during times of war, times when even livestock were slaughtered solely for the sake of blood. They were going to torture him. He was certain of it.
Groth stared at a rusted iron grate in one of the cold clammy walls that was almost identical to the one he'd loosened and escaped through during his last visit. It had been years ago, in his days of youth previous even to his apprenticeship as a blacksmith, that he'd been on a failed cattle-raid in a time without real war -- one could never say there'd been any times of true peace -- and thrown alone into a cell much like to the one he was now starving in. Fortunately, he'd been small enough to squeeze through so meager a space (he'd been much more narrow-shouldered in those days), and escaped whatever grim fate it was that had befallen his fellow raiders. Humans were a notoriously cruel lot, toward themselves almost as badly as they were toward orc-folk, and one could only imagine what savage horrors befell orcs unlucky enough to be captured alive.
Groth had been lucky, and his luck, he was sure, had just run out, with vengeance on its heels. He wasn't certain the humans would remember him, but as any brave orc would do, he'd bragged of his luck so much, and his story had been told and retold so often that he was certain spies had made it known where an orc who'd escaped human ‘justice’ resided, certain the raid had been solely for him, certain that he didn't have enough luck left for a quick death.
Whatever happened, Groth was sure he couldn't endure starving in a horribly cold cell any longer – yes, he was certain he had never had to endure such rank rotting food in his entire life. The festering smell alone proved to be one that he couldn't get used to over prolonged exposure. They actually expected him to eat this? He had been there for days unnumbered, and his constitution was close to giving away his life.
If only they would get on with their tortures, he thought, if they haven't already.
The guard would return to his cell any moment to supply him with decomposed rat stew, and Groth decided he would break at least one of his promises to himself and speak to the sarcastic bastard. The guard had come by only moments earlier to tell him of the wonderful feast he would be having today, of how much he was sure to enjoy it.
Heavy keys rattled at his door, the lock clicked, and the door flew open with a reverberating smash. A scar-faced dwarf in rusty chainmail stood in the blinding-light doorway, grinding the spike of a massive, bloodstained battle-axe on the stone floor with one hand, and holding up a dirty bowl of hell-knows-what in the other.
"Ummm, um! I don't see how they can give all the good stuff to orc-vermin such as you," said the guard in a rust-scraping hoarseness. "It doesn't seem fair, when all I have to feed my poor family is the flesh of freshly-dead cows. Now how is it that they can afford to give you all the comforts of home when a war is going on? I guess a simple guard such as myself isn't meant to understand such injustices. Do you?"
For the first time since he'd been imprisoned, Groth spoke, his voice a raspy whisper. "I'm starving. I can't eat this horse-pile you try to feed me. It smells too much like your mother."
The dwarf scratched at his matted black beard. Groth had never seen such malicious delight from a brown-stained smile in his entire life. The dwarf slowly raised a heavy boot as he tossed the gruel to the floor.
"So the beast does speak. You don't know how pleased I am to hear it. Do you want to find out? Here, I'll show you." The sharp kicks echoing down the torch-lit hallway did little to mask Groth's pain-wrenched screams. Running boots quickly answered the call, almost as if it were a signal, and soon six humans wearing platemail stood behind the dwarf, dragging him from his prey. On the left breasts of their shining steel armor they bore the crest of the king, a stylized black-on-white silhouette wearing a blindfold the color of blood.
One of the humans, the only one with a helmet with a feathered plume, bellowed, "Dammit Azul, when we told you to tell us if and when the orc spoke, we didn't mean for you to use him as an alarm!"
"Ah, just like you humans. You come here into my dungeons and bother me with details. He's spoken, so now he's your responsibility." He looked at Groth, who was bleeding from a head wound on the floor. "Too bad the two of us couldn't get to know one another better. Why, we might've even become friends."
"Only if you’d ‘ve introduced me to your wife first," Groth managed weakly with a smile. The smile Azul returned wasn't a pleasurable one.
"Torus, Herold, grab the orc," said the man with the plumed helm. "Take him to the guest-bath on the third floor, make sure he bathes. Burn his clothes and have a servant get him new ones. When he's clothed, take him to the infirmary. Give the Chief Medic firm instructions that the orc is to be given his full personal attention, and that the orc is to be treated as if he were the king himself. You have your orders."
"Yes Lieutenant," the soldiers mumbled in unison.
The lieutenant and his remaining three men left the cell, Azul glaring at their backs as they departed. The entire time the soldiers took to heft the emaciated orc to his feet and drag him to the door, Azul stared a hole through Groth. Though dwarves on the whole were a good people, their ancestral hatred of orcs ran deeper than anything else in their lives. Their dealings with orcs made human treatment of orc-kind seem friendly. Few dwarves could even barely stand the company of humans, but when it came down to a war between humans and orcs, the dwarven armies would swear their axes, no matter a war's reason, to human kings. The fact that Azul was an outcast among his people didn't make his loathing of orcs any less or his love of humans any greater, but the actions of his human allies were confusing if not downright maddening.
He swore to Sarin the Mad, dwarven god of hatred, that if the humans thought to make peace with the orcs through kiss-ass diplomacy, he'd risk his own life to warn his people, even if it meant his death. Far too many of his own people, and even some of the few humans he might have called friend -- if he'd been the least bit sentimental -- had already died in this war, a war that was proving to be the be-all-end-all of the many hundreds of smaller wars between orc and humankind.
And for once, the orcs were winning. A rare thing indeed, for though orcs were shorter-lived and bred faster than humans -- how short their lives were to dwarves! -- orcs fought among themselves even more so than humans, and when it came to war, their undisciplined hordes swept by the thousands from their mountains and hills, only for a few score to be swept living from the field after being broken by the mounted, highly-trained armies of the Blind King. To the armies of the Blind King, the forces the orcs threw at him from time to time were considered no more than an extensive training exercise in comparison to his constant impending danger from human enemies to the north.
If it weren't for the help of his dwarven allies, the armies of the Blind King would've been overrun long ago. As things stood, the full might all the dwarven kingdoms of the east could bring to bear, united, only helped to stem the tide of the orken advance. Azul cursed as he had many times past at Gogalath, the half-dragon, commander of the orken armies. He spit with malice as he damned Gogalath, or Goga as men sometimes called him, damned his luck as well as his skill as a tactician. Goga had managed to gain control of not only just about every tribe of orcs he'd ever even remotely heard of, but a few hundred mountain gorgons were being used as mounts for his officers. How in Sarin's black heaven he'd managed that -- not to mention that any orcs were brave, or suicidal enough to ride them -- was beyond Azul, and he was pushing three hundred.
And if the rumors were true about Goga being close to sealing a deal with the Dragons of Thursula. . .
Azul would just have to keep an eye open. That's all there was to it. And at the first smell of treachery. . .