Authors: Kristian Alva
Tags: #fantasy, #epic fantasy
Skera-Kina watched them with narrowed eyes, and right before they passed, she jumped from her hiding place. The laughing stopped and the orcs froze. A shadow of recognition crossed their faces, and the largest male ordered the other two to stand behind him. Then he stepped forward and raised his weapon.
That’s curious, Skera-Kina thought. In past encounters, the orcs taunted and mocked her, believing her easy prey. Over the last few years, she had slaughtered dozens of orcs, and their initial reaction to her presence had always been the same.
This was different. The three males observed her warily, their eyes narrowed into slits, as they waited for her to make the first move.
With a voice like thunder, the largest male spoke.
The orcs had given her a name. Skera-Kina marveled at this realization. It was a rare honor
—as well as a warning. Orcs did not grant formal names to other races. If the orcs had gone through the trouble of granting her a name, they knew who she was, and they were showing respect. It meant that she was now part of their
…that she was marked for death.
She was surprisingly pleased. For this, she would fight this creature with honor, without magic or trickery. The largest male raised his axe and shouted his challenge—a hoarse cry that echoed across the bluffs. He pounded his chest twice, so hard that his spiked bracelets drew blood. The black liquid oozed from two shallow punctures near his sternum.
The other two orcs followed suit, screaming their names, but only pounded their chests once. She understood now. This was an introduction. The larger male was the dominant male, and the smaller orcs were his blood-sons.
Skera-Kina stepped back and took a wide stance, arching her back slightly to mimic the ceremonial
’s challenge position. She lowered the timbre of her voice and issued the formal response to her opponent, her words stilted as she struggled to speak in the greenskins’ primitive language.
“You battle me.”
She struck her chest, spat on the ground, then drew a circle in the dirt and stepped inside.
“Round fight, ring fight, circle fight!”
she cried, challenging the large male to formal combat. She spun her fists and crouched low
–ready to battle.
The male nodded and ordered the smaller males to drop their weapons. They obeyed immediately, lowering themselves to a kneeling position, their backs rigid, enormous hands splayed out on their thighs. They lay their axes in front of them and faced the circle. If Skera-Kina won this battle and killed their father, each one was permitted to request a revenge match, either until a victor prevailed or until each of them were dead, whichever came first.
The largest orc stripped down and stepped into the circle without any weapons. He wore only a small leather thong, fitted with a rigid wooden cup to protect his manhood. He was easily twice Skera-Kina’s size, both in weight and bulk. His hairless chest, heavily muscled, was covered with thick scars.
Skera-Kina shrugged off her cloak and tossed it aside. The dark tattoos that covered her entire body were all visible now. Her skin gleamed, moistened by the foggy air, the sharp lines of the rune markings fresh and dark. She removed her sword and placed it outside the circle with her throwing knives.
This was a sacred ceremony, a fight without weapons. Just two bodies, face-to-face, measuring themselves against one another. The orc could not refuse her challenge; they would fight to the death.
The scent gland underneath the orc
’s armpit dripped oil. The stench hung heavy in the air. The orc dragged one palm across the gland and rubbed his hands together, then smeared the rank musk all over his chest and arms. The odor was nauseating, and Skera-Kina fought to keep from gagging. She made a mental note to avoid the gland. If the orc somehow managed to trap her head underneath his arm, it was possible that she could lose the fight. The musk oil of male orcs was mildly toxic and could even cause hallucinations. Moreover, if she touched the gland, no amount of bathing would remove the odor, and the stink would stick to her for several days.
She wouldn’t use any spells during this match, but her tattoos would automatically block sharp objects. Any attempt to puncture or slice her skin would fail. In order to kill her, the orc would need to break her neck or suffocate her.
The orc shouted his first battle-insult.
“Fight, fight, cursed-shadow-woman! You are small and ugly like a beetle, and I shall crush you underneath my heel.”
The other two orcs whistled and howled, clapping their hands and throwing dust, though they remained seated on the sidelines.
Skera-Kina returned his taunts.
You are slow and weak like a river turtle, and I shall break your bones like twigs.
The other two orcs jeered.
The orc stamped his foot.
“I am strong like a bear, and I shall squeeze your skinny neck!”
More chest pounding from the other two.
Her lips peeled back in a wicked leer.
“Your manhood is shriveled, and you are impotent and weak like an old she-goat.”
It was a terrible slur, and the orc
’s face contorted with rage. He crouched into fighting position.
The battle was on.
The two adversaries circled each other for a few moments. All the while, Skera-Kina hissed and spat like a viper. Her tattooed tongue darted between her lips. Neither combatant was permitted to leave the ring during the fight, and no other fighter could enter, or the battle was forfeited.
Suddenly, the orc lunged forward. He swung a meaty fist at Skera-Kina’s head, but she sidestepped easily. If the punch had connected, she would be dead or unconscious, but he moved slowly. She shot her fist at the orc’s chin. Her punch connected, but the orc was unfazed.
She twisted her spine like a cat, and her foot shot out in a solid blur, striking the orc’s wrist with a loud crack. He gasped and drew back, shocked by her speed and strength. The orc swung his fist again, but missed completely when she ducked.
The orc turned around, and Skera-Kina slipped behind him. Before he could react, she kicked out both of his knees with two quick motions of her foot. The orc howled and fell backward.
He scrambled to flip himself over and get back to his feet. Before he could rise, something in his leg spasmed, and she kicked his knee again, this time from the side. Skera-Kina smiled as she heard a crack. The orc groaned in pain and collapsed forward, landing on his chest. She stepped back and waited, allowing him to rise.
One knee was badly injured, but it was too late for him to withdraw from the fight. The orc tried to prop himself on his good leg but was unable to regain his prior fighting stance. His breathing accelerated, and Skera-Kina’s gaze fastened on his face.
Skera-Kina realized he was afraid.
The orc’s shoulders bunched with tension, and he sprung again, leaping forward with his good leg. Skera-Kina toppled back, kicking the orc in the jaw as she flipped. The orc spat out teeth and blood. Before he could regain his bearings, Skera-Kina’s hand shot out, and with nails like spikes, she gouged at her opponent’s eyes. The orc shrieked and fell, momentarily blinded. Skera-Kina sprang like a cat, smashing both her heels down on the orc’s injured leg. She heard a pop as the knee was crushed.
The orc roared, thrashing about in pain and frustration. The other two males outside the circle sat shock-still, immobilized by fear. They had never seen anything like this; the orc never even touched her.
Skera-Kina stood over the injured male and spoke, her expression hardening.
A noble attempt,
but the outcome was never in dispute.
As the orc
’s ancient language flowed from her lips, she felt a shiver of euphoria. She said in a slow, grave voice,
“I am the Lady of Death—devourer and destroyer. When the Final Battle comes to pass, I shall bring ruin and devastation upon this land. It is the law of nature that the weak shall fall before the strong. I am the winner, and your life is mine.”
The orcs paused, frozen in fear. The foggy air carried the rasping echo of Skera-Kina
’s voice, and the sound reverberated across the sea like the tolling of a great bell. She leaned down near the orc’s face and asked,
“Uggun nee ibixtuk?
—Do you choose life or death?”
“I choose death.” Skera-Kina nodded gravely, then stepped outside the circle and recovered the orc’s axe from the dirt. There was really no other choice, but if he had shown fear and pleaded for his life, she would have slaughtered them all. As it was, she would allow the other two males to live, and they would carry this story back to their elders.
She lifted the weapon above her head, and the orc snarled at her with steely hate. Skera-Kina nodded in satisfaction. He was unflinching and defiant to the end—a worthy adversary. This orc had fought well and deserved an honorable death.
As the axe came down, she happily granted it.
Hundreds of leagues from Parthos, the dwarf clans were arguing. Two opposing factions had formed within Mount Velik: one faction calling for a new king, the other supporting the ailing King Hergung, bedridden and sickly.
The Vardmiter clan, led by the rebel leader Utan, had broken off and left Mount Velik for good, relocating to the Highport Mountains. They would not return.
For centuries, the Vardmiter clan had been treated like outcasts, performing all of the other clans
’ undesirable jobs: the cleaning of sewers, butchering animals, garbage pick-up, preparing the dead for burial, to name a few.
The jobs were unpleasant, but they were necessary, and when the Vardmiters left, the largest segment of the dwarves’ manual labor force had vanished. None of the other clans wanted to do these
and Mount Velik had descended into chaos.
Despite several attempts, the dragon riders had failed to negotiate a peaceful settlement between the clans. Today, the dwarf council would meet again to discuss the reinstatement of a clan leader to her former position. Bolrakei was the former leader of Klora-Kanna, the wealthy jewelcutters
’ clan. Even after being stripped of her office several years ago, she had remained defiant. She simply refused to abandon her authority, staying the
leader for her clan. A replacement for her office had never been elected, and she continued to rule through her advisors. It was evident that a majority supported her return to leadership, and a few even supported her bid for complete control over all the clans.
An arrogant smile crossed Bolrakei
’s lips as she strutted into Mount Velik’s vast atrium, where the dwarf council waited for her to arrive. The council had been formed recently, with the oldest and most powerful families coming together to establish law and settle disputes. Members included heads of each of the powerful dwarf families, but King Hergung was conspicuously absent, represented only by his bitter-faced councilor. The councilmembers all sat at a long wooden table in the middle of the hall, each doing little to hide their mistrust of one another.
Bolrakei plopped down, adjusting her vast bulk in an ornate gilded chair. She was surrounded by dozens of supporters and several advisors with whom she traded conspiratorial whispers. Today, the members would vote on her official reinstatement. She suppressed a smile as she eyed the assembly. She knew exactly what would happen: behind closed doors, the council argued as they pretended to consider her petition. Then, they would unanimously approve her reinstatement—she had paid hefty bribes to ensure it.
She looked smugly around the table. There were a few councilmembers that she had been unable to bribe, but they were powerless by themselves. The king hadn’t even bothered to attend the meeting. King Hergung had become a recluse, agoraphobic and sealed away in his private rooms. He was the weakest dwarf king in a thousand years. There would be no opposition from him, especially since she had already bribed Hergung’s closest staff.
Now that Utan was gone, along with his raggedy group of Vardmiter outcasts, her only real adversary was Skemtun, the leader of Marretaela, the miners’ clan.
The dwarves who remained at Mount Velik had chosen sides, with a third supporting their ever-weakening king, a third supporting Skemtun, and the remainder supporting Bolrakei. It was only a matter of time before the balance of power tipped in her favor.
Councilmember Pilfni Grinderiees rose from the table and cleared his throat. “Attention, everyone! Attention!” He rapped his gavel and motioned for his guards to quiet the crowd. “Please settle down, folks. We have a lot to do today.” The chatter died down slowly. “First on the agenda, we will revisit the issue of Bolrakei Shalevault’s reinstatement as the clan leader for Klora-Kanna.” A cheer went up from the crowd gathered behind Bolrakei’s seat. Her expression remained somber, but her eyes were smiling.
“Before we take our vote, Ms. Shalevault will make an official statement.”