The Shadows of Men
The Orc who would not fight, who avoided fights, finds himself having to fight in order to save Tia and Andylyr—and to save himself.
The music and laughter cast a surreal auditory blanket over his mounting panic.
He rifled through her room and glanced under the bed. She wasn’t here.
“Tia!” he hissed.
His heart pounding, he lit the bedside lamp on the nightstand, and that’s when he noticed it: a speck of red glinting under the light’s steady yellow glow. He went to it.
Blood. Human blood. Fresh.
He gazed at the bed. It was wildly unkempt, as though someone had thrown the covers and pillows about willy-nilly.
... or struggled futilely against kidnappers.
His beautiful young friend Rothtia had indeed been kidnapped. Wherever she was right now, it would soon intersect with wherever her mother was being held, if it already hadn’t.
He struggled to think past his panic. He sat at the edge of the bed, bent forward, and fought fiercely to get hold of himself.
“I need your help!” he hissed between tightly clenched teeth and elbows.
Would Darver Dreph hear him? Could she help him?
But ... she already had! His true face was camouflaged to humans!
But that wasn’t enough! It wasn’t enough!
The longer he sat, the more hopeless and dangerous the outcome was likely to be.
With supreme effort, he closed his eyes and breathed deeply and consciously. A deep, focused, dark coldness was reaching insistent fingers into his chest, his arms, his legs from someplace very far down in his core, one that felt both familiar and alien. It was trying to say something, but indecision and fear were keeping him from hearing it.
Now wasn’t the time for indecision! He had to do something—now!
He hurried back to his room and fetched his hat and put it on. He didn’t need to wear it, it was quite plain, but it had become something of a crutch to him, and he felt more confident wearing it. He pulled the brim down and marched out for the stairs.
Where are you going? a tiny part of him demanded.
But almost as soon as the question was asked was the voice asking it stifled. That was the voice of indecision and fear, that dark coldness told him. Feel me, it urged. Feel me and do as you must.
Down the stairs to the revelers, none of whom gave him a second’s notice.
Three musicians had gathered in the center of the floor. They played celebratory music which had many on their feet and dancing, or drinking from large flagons and laughing. Most of the drinkers were men; most of the dancers were women.
No one noticed him. An Orc. In their very presence.
His heart, which had been pounding with fear, was pounding more and more with ...
Were humans better than Orcs?
That dark, reaching coldness seemed to lend intense clarity to his eyesight, for as he watched the revelers, he began noticing ... things ... about them.
Not things, no. Traits. Qualities. Moods. The more they tried to hide them, the easier it was for him to see them. Deep, deep inside, the shadows of men became illuminated inside his spirit, where, in a language without words, informed his brain about them.
He became aware of this new ability over several minutes, as he watched them.
This woman here ... was hiding the fact that she had had a child by a man who wasn’t her husband as he fought in the war. He clapped and sang as she danced.
As for him ... he had found particular pleasure in harming helpless victims while being a soldier. He had enjoyed watching them bleed. He had enjoyed watching them die.
Krapp flinched. The darkness was too much, too ugly!
He forced himself to gaze at someone else.
This woman, closest to him ... she despised her mother, who busied herself by being in her business every hour of the day. She wanted to flee Boverroth and find a new life anywhere else. Anywhere!
And this woman ... the one talking to the innkeeper who stood behind the bar ... she ...
Krapp’s breath caught in his throat.
When he focused on her, an image of Tia flashed in his mind!
He focused harder. Again, Tia flashed. Her young face was twisted in terror! She was gazing up, as though whoever had taken her had loomed over her!
That woman was one of the kidnappers!
He took an impulsive step forward. Still, no one looked at him. He peered at the innkeeper, Rhaehold. His blood went cold.
Rhaehold was a kidnapper too!
As Krapp focused on him, he saw that Tia ... had been handed off ... to others. Those humans dumped her into a gunny sack after gagging her and hauling her twisting, writhing, moaning form out of the inn. He watched as the group—which included another woman—threw the Dwarf a fat purse, one that clinked heavily as though gold or silver were in it.
He discovered that he had backed himself into a darkened corner near the stairs, his eyes dry from staring. The music and laughter was oddly muted, his heart calming to a steady, enraged thumping.
He couldn’t hear what they were talking about, but somehow he knew. The images came at him, many times blurred together, overlapping, confusing until he forced himself to focus on them as hard as he could.
They were talking about killing—him!
Not in words, but in pictures, in images in their minds and hearts, he “heard”:
“... don’t know who he is. Probably a traitorous bastard protecting the Orc. He’s a dead man in any case.”
“Fools. How stupid can they be to actually show up here in the village?”
“Are you sure we shouldn’t go to the council with this?”
“Don’t be so stupid! If we play this right, we can both come out as heroes, and our families will be set for life! They came in here! What great luck! Going to the council ... what do you think will happen? They will not believe us, for one. And if we got them to believe us, what then? They will deliberate and argue. They might go to Gondor—but who will even notice them? They might send written word to the king—but then, even if that word is believed, who will be there to claim authorship of the document? We’re cursed, remember? Best case: they’ll do what the damned council here will do—deliberate and argue. And then maybe, after a couple of months of that manure has passed, and resolutions adopted, and so on and so forth, they might send out a hunting party to kill the Orc. And where does that leave us? Still cursed, not a penny richer, and in fact likely much poorer from all the crap we’ll have to deal with, traveling and such, to prove our case! We’ve got the witch who admitted to taking in the Orc. She has plenty of money—you can bet your life on it! Now that we’ve got her brat daughter, the Orc will have to show himself! This is the world of men now! He won’t survive by himself!”
Krapp, his mind becalmed like the center of a storm, began walking towards them. He could see Tia’s terror-streaked face as they bound and gagged her. He could feel her heft as Rhaehold and the woman lifted her and handed her over to the others as quickly as possible, and as she writhed helplessly inside after being stuffed into the gunny sack.
The music and clapping seemed to echo around his rage as he approached, urging him to action.
The woman was the first to look at him. Her eyes narrowed.
Rhaehold jumped the bar, dagger in his fist.
It was a fatal mistake. Krapp was going to demand to know where they had taken her, and where Andylyr was; that was all. But upon detecting the glint of lamplight off the polished blade, something inside him exploded. With a blur of his backhand, his Orc nails fully extended, he slashed across the Dwarf’s hairy face. The trails appearing on his flesh were instantly red and an inch deep. Two cut through his eye. The Dwarf bellowed, staggering backward against the bar, exposing his neck.
The woman screamed, because Rhaehold’s neck began jetting arterial blood with the next slash. Krapp snatched the dagger and pressed it against her throat, having lifted her off the stool and against the wood wall like she weighed nothing. The merriment continued unabated.
The Orc who wouldn’t fight for a stupid flaming eye wouldn’t hesitate to fight for a truly righteous cause. It made him as dangerous as any Uruk-hai that had ever lived.
“Where is she?” he rasped, his face up against hers, the brim of his hat bending against her forehead. “Where is Rothtia?”
The woman must have seen through the illusion that he was a human, because true terror colored her eyes, the kind that went far beyond her current dire circumstances.
“My God ... My God ...” she choked. “You’re ... you’re ...”
“WHERE IS SHE?”
“Under ... the ... stable ... boards!” she coughed, her voice barely able to function under his grip. “The stable boards! I sw—”
A huge hand descended on his shoulder. “WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?”
It withdrew a half-instant later, the cut across it as deep as his nails had slashed across Rhaehold’s neck. Rhaehold—who sat crumpled against the bar, staring lifelessly, a pool of blood forming around him.
Krapp, mindless, struck again, and the large man staggered backward with the blow, bowling into others, who fell over, drinks in hand.
The singing and merriment ceased.
The crowd stared at him, wide-eyed. Could they see that he was an Orc, as the woman had? She was yelling, “HE’S AN ORC! LOOK AT HIM! HE’S AN ORC! KILL HIM!”
Some gaped at her as though she were crazy. It was enough time for him to take a flying leap at the large picture window. It shattered around and down on him almost effortlessly. He landed on his feet on the porch, dagger still in his grip, glass spilling off the hat’s brim. The woman was still screaming. “GET HIM! HE’S VERY DANGEROUS! GET HIM!”
He jumped the railing to the street and ran as fast as he could for the stables. He didn’t know if those were the stables Rothtia was being held captive—horses were everywhere around here, and so stables had to have been too—but at this moment he had no other options. Besides, Shygar was there, and he’d need him sooner than later. He heard revelers burst out of the inn and several give chase. “Call the constable! We’ve got a madman on the loose! The constable! The constable!”
Krapp streaked through the night like he owned it. His Orc being, born for violence, born for speed and strength and cunning, weaved through the shadows like he had magicked them there for his own purposes. His hearing was acutely attuned: the chasing men were fifty paces back, no more than that. He could hear their breath. He could feel their intent towards him—far more violent than what he gave to the hateful Dwarf. He could see how they saw him: not as an Orc, but as a human, one that they thought they could dominate and punish. Only the woman saw through his cloak—or whatever it was called: he could see that the others thought she was crazy for thinking he was one; but it didn’t matter. They wanted to harm him. It would bring this merry night to an exciting end. That was all they wanted: excitement. Something interesting for their endlessly dull lives.
The stables appeared around a corner. A straight run—a hundred yards. He flew up the street with ever-greater urgency.
At the gate, he didn’t slow down, but leapt into the air, clearing it easily and landing on the other side.
Was the stable owner involved too? What was his name again—Mister Rilton? Was he involved?
He wasn’t around, perhaps sleeping in the nearby home to the right, one which appeared as dark as these stables.
He got to the main door. No. Instead of trying to lift the beam across it, he turned left and sprinted alongside the building. Several of the stable windows were open. At the last one, he leapt inside, landing in the middle of two horses that grunted when he appeared. Shygar was in here somewhere ... but damnit! He couldn’t remember which stable Mister Rilton had told them he’d be in!
The chasing footsteps grew steadily louder, then stopped. He heard:
“He’s in here, I’d wager.”
“Come on!” yelled another.
He heard them split up. Some went right; the others left. They were going to get in here, surround him, and kill him. There was no doubt about it.
Stable boards ... stable boards ...
They were all over this stable! And this could be the wrong stable to boot!
He jumped the interior gate to a low crouch and began casting about for Shygar and ... and ... somehow locating the stable boards that were holding Andylyr and Tia captive. The men outside ... five or ten of them ... were talking. His superior Orc hearing easily picked up the conversation.
“Where’s the damn constable?”
“We can’t just go in! Not with the constable coming!”
“We’ll do what we must, you simpering coward! If the constable gets in our way, we’ll deal with him, too!”
“Quietly! Let’s do this quietly! The stable owner is probably awake by now!”
“Rilton? That dough-head? He hasn’t the intelligence to grip his own sausage, let alone do anything but cower inside! Now c’mon!”
Krapp scurried here, scurried there, dagger raised next to his face. As another paddock passed by, he heard a familiar nicker. Shygar!
It occurred to him then that he could find Andylyr and Tia! He just had to ... change focus for a moment!
That was very difficult to do, given that at least two men had just come inside. He heard daggers being pulled from sheaths. The stables were large—at least two dozen paddocks under one roof, he guessed. It seemed that few in his immediate vicinity were occupied. Mister Rilton must have been a very successful businessman to own such a large structure.
He hugged himself into a sightless corner and tried steadying his breathing. Closing his eyes—itself a monumental task—he turned his focus towards those he loved.
Where are you? he thought. Show me where you are!
He could see men’s hearts. Tia and her mother had the biggest hearts he had ever encountered. They had saved him and befriended him, had protected him and given him a home, food, and clothing. They had loved him unconditionally.
Look ... there, an inner urge told him.
There ... where a man was walking towards, just up the main corridor in here ... beneath his feet ...
He caught his breath, for it was beneath that man’s feet that he could clearly sense Tia and Andylyr! He could tell: they were both distressed and terribly frightened.
But now both men were standing almost over that very spot—almost as if they knew what he was looking for!
As he watched, paralyzed, the rest of the men joined them. Six in all.
As he watched, paralyzed, the rest of the men joined them. Six in all.