Gluk trudged up the wooded slope, his great clawed feet leaving deep gouges in the snow. Behind and below him in the valley, his horde-mates, along with the rest of the Orc nation clashed with the armies of Accursed Light in what was supposed to be the Last Great Battle.
Gluk was deserting.
If he were caught, it would be the wolf-pits for him for sure. The Dark Lord did not take kindly to unilateral declarations of independence.
It wasn’t that Gluk was afraid of battle: he’d fought, killed and eaten his fair share of Elves and Men, same as everybody else. No, it was just that the whole thing no longer gave him the pleasure it used to – it was all so monotonous.
Gluk didn’t have any real plan, he just knew that he didn’t want to be down there in the valley.
Further up the hill, unbeknownst to the Orc, an Elf – one Gilthalas Evergreen by name – was making his way carefully down through the trees to where he could see a lighter patch of snow which indicated the presence of a small clearing. He reckoned it would be a suitably sheltered place to rest whilst he got his strength back. He was bone-weary and almost out of magic. In the morning, after a night’s rest, he would use his magic to close the wound in his side that some nameless Orc pig had dared to inflict on him. Gilthalas smiled to himself: the pig had died for his audacity and his magically charred corpse would serve as a warning to others.
It was not far to the clearing now.
Up ahead of him, Gluk also noticed the small clearing in the trees. It would be a good place to stop for a while, he thought, maybe watch the battle. It was out of the biting wind and well-concealed from prying eyes.
Gluk was beginning to get hungry and there hadn’t been time to grab any food. He’d seen his chance to escape when Captain Guthlak’s back had been turned: he’d been at the back of the horde and the forest edge had been invitingly close.
He reached the clearing and leaned his bulk against a tree. In a nearby bush a small blue and white bird sang prettily. Without conscious thought, Gluk’s clawed hand slashed out and impaled the tiny creature, its song stilled mid-trill. He munched on the tiny snack for a while, spitting out the feathers now and then. He was just crunching the last few little bones, eyes closed to better enjoy the flavour when he became aware that he was being watched.
Unbidden, a growl rose in his throat as the unmistakable stink of Elf assaulted his nostrils. He was about to leap to the attack when he noticed the sword.
The Elf had crept up on him whilst he was eating and now held the sword’s blade pointed unwaveringly at his heart. It was a long sword, a sharp sword, and it was clearly magical. Tiny tongues of blue flame danced up and down the edge and runes of power glowed all along the blade's length. A sword like that could do a lot of damage - an awful lot of damage. Gluk’s own weapon was still in its scabbard; by the time he could lug it out, the Elf would have spitted him for sure.
For his part, Gilthalas watched his foe intently for any tiny movement that might indicate that he was about to launch an attack.
He hoped fervently that he wouldn’t.
The two of them remained frozen in position for several moments, neither willing to make that all-important first move. It was Gilthalas, however, who eventually broke the silence.
‘I tire of this.’ he said in the Common speech. ‘Get you gone from this place, Hell-spawn.’ He motioned with the sword’s tip back down the hill to where the battle was now in full swing.
This was not quite what Gluk had been expecting and he had no desire to rejoin the battle. He had found this place first, after all, and was not going to give it up on the say-so of an Elf – even if he did have a magic sword.
‘This is my place,’ he rumbled in his heavily-accented Common, ‘Go find another.’
Gilthalas allowed his golden eyes to narrow and his thin lip to curl in contempt. ‘In case you haven’t noticed, I’m the one holding the sword. Now go, your stench offends me.’
Gluk could not understand why the Elf had not killed him already. After all, as he had pointed out, he was the one with the big magic sword and Elves were known for their fierce hatred of Orc-kind. With them, it was usually kill on sight.
Then Gluk became aware of another smell, a smell that caused his stomach to rumble and his mouth to water. It was the smell of blood. The Elf was wounded.
Now that Gluk looked carefully, he could see the hole in the Elf’s mail-coat in his right side and the thin smear of blood around it. So that was it. The Elf had some advantage for sure, but with such a wound he would not have the stamina for the fight. If his first blow did not kill Gluk outright – and there was a good chance it wouldn’t since he was as large and strong as Orcs came - he would be hard pressed indeed. Neither could he simply walk away for that would invite an attack from the rear.
Not such an advantage then, Gluk thought. He smiled a tusky smile.
‘You want this place,’ he grinned, ‘you fight me.’
For a chilling moment, Gluk thought the Elf would take him up on the invitation. The Elf’s hand tightened on the sword and his pale face contorted with rage. The moment passed however, and the Elf began carefully to back away, the sword still raised.
Feeling behind him with his free hand, Gilthalas located the trunk of a tree not far from the one Gluk was using for a backrest, and leaned against it. He watched the Orc carefully as he retreated. He knows I’m wounded, he thought, curse his hairy hide!
‘It seems we’re doomed to share this little beauty spot.’ he said, still keeping a wary eye on Gluk.
His free hand then quickly sketched a pattern in the air and the unmistakable electric tingle of magic made the hairs on Gluk’s neck stand up.
‘It’s a Protection spell.’ explained Gilthalas, ‘In case you get any ideas. Get within three feet of me and you die.’
With a sigh of relief, he slid the sword into its scabbard and unfastened his mail-coat to re-dress the deep gash in his side underneath. The Protection spell would keep the pig off him for now, but it wouldn’t last all night. It was also his very last bit of magic – not that the Orc needed to know that.
What would happen in the morning, though, was anybody’s guess.
Gluk was kind of glad of the Elf’s warning: he had been wondering whether he might rush him now that that nasty sword was safely in its scabbard. It wasn’t worth it now, though.
He allowed himself to slide down the tree into a sitting position. Might as well rest for a while. Not sleep though, not with the bright-eyes so near.
Time passed. The din of the Last Great Battle drifted up through the trees from time to time. Gluk watched Gilthalas and Gilthalas watched him. Gluk’s stomach rumbled again. Gilthalas heard it and rummaged in his backpack. He produced a loaf of bread and a hunk of some kind of meat. With a smile, he proffered the food to the Orc. Gluk was just about to reach over and take it when he remembered the Protection spell and snatched his hand back with a snarl. Gilthalas laughed nastily.
‘Not so stupid then, my smelly friend.’ He bit into the meat himself, all the while eyeing Gluk to observe his reaction.
‘You’re the one who stinks, Elf.’ was the nearest thing to a withering riposte that Gluk could produce.
‘Elves do not, as you so crudely put it, stink.’ retorted Gilthalas, hotly.
‘You do to me – all Elves do.’ Here, Gluk struggled to express an idea more complex than his not over-large brain was used to. ‘You don’t smell your stink, we don’t smell our stink.’
‘True enough, I suppose.’ agreed Gilthalas grudgingly. ‘Although it wouldn’t kill you to have a bath, would it?’
‘What for?’ Gluk was puzzled. He knew what baths were but had never applied the idea of bathing to himself personally.
‘So you don’t stink to high heaven.’ snapped Gilthalas, ‘That’s what for.’
‘You bath?’ asked Gluk. Gilthalas nodded. ‘Of course.’
‘Didn’t work for you then.’ Gluk guffawed at his own cleverness. True, this was not exactly the cut and thrust of witty debate, but by Orc standards it was pretty sophisticated.
Gilthalas rolled his golden eyes in disgust. ‘Keep the noise down, fool!’ he hissed. ‘Do you want half the world to know we’re here?’
Gluk stopped laughing at once. Discovery was the last thing he wanted right now. Then a thought occurred to him: he knew why he was hiding here, but why was the Elf so keen to avoid being found?
‘Why did you come here?’ he asked.
Gilthalas debated with himself whether or not to answer this and decided not to.
‘Mind your own business.’ he replied.
‘Hah! I bet you ran away.’ Gluk opined, ‘You were scared of battle.’
Gilthalas had been sitting on the ground cross-legged but was on his feet in an instant with such fluid grace that even Gluk’s limited aesthetic sensibilities were impressed.
‘No Yrch-sla pig calls Gilthalas Evergreen a coward!’ he cried, heedless of his own admonition of but a few moments before.
‘So come kill me.’ taunted Gluk. He had hit right on the mark and he knew it.
Gilthalas’s pale features were flushed with anger and the pain in his side had flared up at the sudden exertion. He was angry at the Orc’s dirty taunts but even more furious at himself for responding to them so readily. He couldn’t afford to let the pig unbalance his mental equilibrium – he would need all his wits about him if were to figure a way out of this stand-off situation.
He calmed himself with a supreme effort of will and a few whispered aethla-ar. He lowered himself slowly back to a sitting position, glaring sullenly at the Orc all the while.
Night was beginning to fall and the temperature, never particularly high in this part of the mountains, began to drop. Hunger was gnawing at Gluk’s belly again. He scooped up a few handfuls of snow and ate them in the vain hope that they would dull his hunger pangs. He glared resentfully at the Elf who had food to spare he was sure – not that’d he ever give any of it to poor old Gluk.
The evening wore on. Either party would have given an eye-tooth for a nice warm fire, but that would have been foolhardy indeed. In the valley below, the fighting had broken off for the night and both armies had retired to lick their wounds and prepare for the next day’s assault.
Occasionally, the night air carried the forlorn sound of a Dire Wolf baying at the moon which had risen above the trees. The moonlight was a sickly pale glow, magnified and diffused somewhat by the snow. No doubt both sides would have scouts out to keep an eye on the enemy and cause mayhem if the opportunity should present itself. No, a fire would be too risky.
Gilthalas was becoming bored and the pain from his wound nagged at him. Perhaps a little conversation – even if it was with an Orc - would provide a distraction from it.
‘Is it true’ he asked with deliberate slowness and clarity so that the Orc could not possibly misunderstand, ‘that Orcs eat their own babies?’
If he was expecting the Orc to spark up at this deliberate barb, he was to be disappointed.
‘Only the weak or sick.’ replied Gluk matter-of-factly. ‘That way, all are stronger.’
‘That’s an interesting philosophy.’ continued Gilthalas, ‘We Elves care for all our kind, regardless of their strength or health. It is a virtue to show compassion.’
‘A waste of food, more like,’ sneered Gluk. ‘Can the sick fight? No, so be rid of them.’
‘Is there not more to life than fighting?’ asked Gilthalas.
‘Not for us, we were made only to fight.’ This was what every Orc knew and was never questioned.
‘To fight for what?’ came Gilthalas’s silky voice in the darkness. ‘A Lord who would gladly sacrifice every last one of your kind if it suited his purpose?’
Alone among Orcs, only Gluk had actually dared to wonder about this. He had never spoken of it aloud of course, such talk would invite a flogging for sure.
‘Don’t know.’ he admitted eventually. ‘Orcs fight, Orcs die.’ His head felt strange from all this unaccustomed brain-work so he comforted himself by picking his nose.
The pain in Gilthalas’s side was growing steadily worse and he had begun to feel feverish and light-headed. Worryingly, despite his best efforts, his wound would not close properly, it just oozed a slow trickle of blood the whole time. Even more worryingly, he could not feel the warm tingle of his magic returning – as it should have by now - and he was going to need it if he was to stand any chance of getting out of his current predicament. No doubt the filthy Orcish blade that had inflicted the wound had been poisoned in some way. Well, at least, the pig wielding the blade died for his audacity, he thought.
It was a pity that it did not look like he himself would live past the dawn at this rate. If the poison didn’t kill him then surely the pig over there would – and if not him, there would surely be others. Of all the bad luck!
Gilthalas closed his eyes against the pain and whispered some more aethla-ar to take his mind off it.
For his part, Gluk wanted nothing more than to sleep, but the presence of his enemy forbade that. Elves were notoriously soft-footed and Gluk did not wish for his next awakening to be in the next world. He dug in his pouch and hauled out a filthy pipe and some weed. He filled the bowl and began to smoke, the harsh taste of the tobacco would be enough to keep him awake.
‘I hope no-one smells that smoke and comes looking.’ came Gilthalas’s voice out of the darkness.
‘No one here.’ grunted Gluk, ‘All asleep now.’ He took another puff.
Indeed, the night had gone very quiet, only the rustling of the light wind in the trees and the soft hiss of Gilthalas’s whispered meditations disturbed the silence.
Gluk had been aware of Gilthalas’s deteriorating condition for some time and was fairly sure he knew the cause of it.
‘Your wound will not heal.’ he observed, ‘Soon you will die. Bunduk will see to that’ He allowed himself a rumbling chuckle.
Bunduk was a powerful poison, usually fatal - unless, of course, you had the antidote. Like all soldiers in the Dark Lord’s army, Gluk carried a small amount of the antidote with him. He patted a certain little pot in his pouch thoughtfully for a moment.
‘Hey, Elf.’ he called softly. Gilthalas turned to look at him, his golden eyes half-closed in pain. He was more slumped against the tree now than sitting upright.
‘What?’ he said wearily.
‘I have the cure for Bunduk.’ The Orc held up the little pot and waved it tauntingly at him.
‘So what?’ said Gilthalas, deliberately not rising to the bait – he wouldn’t give the pig the satisfaction.
‘So nothing, bright-eyes.’ Gluk laughed again, enjoying himself for the first time in ages. He shoved the pot back into his pouch.
Stupid Orc, thought Gilthalas. Then he had an idea. Maybe the Orc would be willing to trade the cure for something. Yes, but what? Food, perhaps? The Orc was hungry, Gilthalas knew that much.
‘How about a trade.’ he said, ‘The cure in return for some food.’
‘How much food?’ Gluk wanted to know. He certainly was hungry. His belly rumbled encouragement.
Gilthalas opened his pack. ‘A week’s rations.’ he said.
‘Good. Throw me the food.’
Gilthalas hesitated. If he threw the food over, the Orc could just eat it and still not give him the cure. On the other hand, what choice did he have?
Gilthalas tossed over the cloth sack. Gluk grabbed it and immediately started messily devouring the contents. Gilthalas waited impatiently until the Orc had eaten his fill.
‘You’ve had your price,’ he said, ‘how about giving me the cure?’
Gluk laughed. ‘Stupid Elf! No cure for you!’ Gluk was hugely pleased that he had managed to trick the bright-eyes out of his food.
Gilthalas cursed silently: he should have known better than to trust the filthy pig. Then another idea came to him. If he played it just right...
‘How about another trade?’ he suggested. The Orc stopped laughing and looked at him.
Gilthalas picked up hi sword, still in its scabbard.
Gilthalas was gratified to see the Orc’s eyes light up with greed and a broad smile appear on his ugly face.
‘Yes!’ he cried, ‘Throw it here.’ He had wanted that sword from the moment he had first laid eyes on it.
‘Not so fast.’ replied Gilthalas. ‘You give me the cure first this time.’
The Orc laughed out loud. ‘You think I’m stupid? Sword first, then cure. Or shall I wait a bit and take it when you’re dead?’ This was a pleasing idea, he wished he’d thought of it before.
Gilthalas’s mind raced. The Protection spell had worn off some time before, but surely the Orc couldn’t know that. No, Gilthalas told himself, if he did he would have attacked by now – he’s probably just trying to needle me. In which case...
‘You won’t get the sword even then,’ he replied, ‘the Protection spell will keep on working even after I’m dead.’ Gilthalas was banking on the Orc’s ignorance of magic, and was relieved and pleased to see the smile disappear from his ugly face.
‘So you see,’ he continued, ‘if you want this sword, you’ll have to give me the pot first. I’ll need to make sure the antidote works.’
Gluk was annoyed to feel the upper hand slipping away from him. He really wanted that sword now that he could see a way of getting hold of it.
‘How can I trust you?’ he snarled sullenly. ‘You will keep the pot and the sword.’
‘I give you my word as an Elf and as one warrior to another. You give me the pot and I will give you the sword.’ Gilthalas picked up the scabbarded blade and made as if to admire it. ‘It really is a good sword,’ he murmured, ‘one of the finest ever made by the smiths of Tor-vannin.’
Gluk had to make a choice. He didn’t want to trust one of the hated enemy, but the Elf had given his word and Elves always kept their word, everybody knew that. That was just one of their many stupid ways.
Reluctantly, he tossed the pot over. Gilthalas caught it deftly and removed the lid. The smell of the thick, black goo in the pot made his eyes water.
‘How do I use it?’ he asked.
‘Half on the wound, half in your belly.’ answered Gluk. ‘Sword now.’ He reached out.
‘Let me try this first.’ said Gilthalas, gingerly smearing some of the goo on his wound.
The pain was excruciating and, for a moment, Gilthalas thought he had been deceived, but after the initial shock there came a cool tingling sensation that was not at all unpleasant.
‘It seems to be working.’ he said, ‘So now I eat the rest of this, yes?’ The thought was not attractive. The Orc nodded eagerly.
It tasted every bit as bad as Gilthalas expected and he almost vomited several times, but eventually the pot was empty. The tingling was spreading through his body now, replacing the pain. Orc medicine was nothing if not effective.
‘Now give me the sword.’ insisted Gluk, who could barely keep from rushing over and grabbing it.
Gilthalas hefted the sword thoughtfully, savouring the warm feeling of his quickly returning health. Then, when he had waited for as long as he dared, he stood up and tossed the scabbard with the blade still in it to land near the Orc’s feet.
Gluk bent and grabbed it quickly. With a triumphant cry, he unsheathed the coveted sword.
His joy turned to rage in an instant.
‘This is not magic!’ Gluk bellowed, staring at the blade, which was indeed quite ordinary.
‘I never said it was.’ replied Gilthalas, ‘But this is.’
At a word, a stream of fiery magical darts sprang from his fingers and found their deadly mark in Gluk’s chest. The Orc slumped to the snowy ground, semi-conscious.
Gilthalas stood over Gluk, looking down at him with contempt. The Fire-Darts were potent: it would soon be all over for the pig. Gilthalas couldn’t resist a final gloat.
‘When I saw you in the clearing last night,’ he explained, ‘I knew that, being wounded, I couldn’t take you on with just this old sword. A simple glamour spell made the blade appear magical and bought me some time. Your greed did the rest.’
‘But you gave your word as an Elf and a warrior.’ gasped Gluk.
‘I did, didn't I?' agreed Gilthalas, 'But, as you said earlier, I was running away from the battle, so what kind of warrior does that make me? It's not even my sword, I stole it.‘
He strapped the scabbard back on and sheathed the blade. ‘As for being an Elf, that much is true, but let’s just say that I follow a different path from the rest of my Elvish brothers.’
The Elf’s mocking laughter was the last sound Gluk heard in this world.
Gilthalas Evergreen, deserter, liar, and thief, his health restored and with it his magic, strode out of the clearing.