They were woken in the dim early morning by the sound of hammering at hallooing at the door. Korina jumped up, seized by panic for a moment. Once she shook herself awake and recognized Tam’s voice, she remembered.
“A minute!” she shouted. She threw on her tunic and jumped down from the loft. She shifted the chair away from the door, but waited until Elice had pulled on a dress before opening.
Tam was standing outside, grinning his biggest grin and bouncing up and down a little against the morning chill. Behind him stood a taller boy, swarthy-skinned with dark locks curling down to his shoulders. He wore a brown robe and dark cloak and had a number of small pouches slung from his belt.
“Well, welly! Good morrow, my good ladies!” Tam cried. “I said I’d come first thing, ay? I don’t suppose you have anything to eat? My friend and I set out soon as sunup and we’re a mountain of hungry!”
“Come in,” Elice called from the fireplace. “I’ll get us some breakfast.”
Tam stepped inside and ushered his friend in as well.
“My new friends, Korina and Elice,” Tam declared, making the introductions with a grand bow, “my old friend, Voren ma-Dakash. He used to be one of us street rangers, but he got took on as an apprentice mage. His folk used to sail the trade out of Booty Bay over to t’other side of the world like and he can talk right fine orc.”
Voren gave a sidelong look from under his dark hair at Korina and Elice.
“They call me Voren Darkflame, scholar of the arcane mysteries,” he said in a deep voice.
“No we don’t” said Tam. “We call you something, ay, but it ain’t that!”
Voren glared at him, then folded his arms and looked away.
“Well, I suppose for country girls like you, Voren will do.”
“You can speak orcish?” Korina asked.
“Throm-ka,” Voren said with a nod. “Orcish is a strong language, a language of great power.” He raised a hand and muttered a few guttural sounds. Sparks of flame danced on his fingertips as he spoke. Elice backed away from him and Tam sank into a corner covering his face with one hand, but Korina stood firm. Voren waved the flame away and looked at Korina. “I know more than that. I can chant you an orcish song of blood and longing, and I can set fire to more than just my fingers.”
Korina gritted her teeth but kept her voice calm.
“We want you to talk to an orc,” she said. “Our mother is missing and the orc knows something about it. Will you help us or not?”
“Your mother’s gone?” said Voren, pulling out one of the chairs from the table and lounging across it. “So, we have the house to ourselves, then. And girls like you shouldn’t be alone in times like these. Why don’t we play a game: you girls show us your parts and I’ll teach you what to call them in orc.”
Korina lunged across the room, grabbed Voren by the collar and threw him into the corner with Tam.
“You think this is a game?” she shouted. “Our mother is in danger and you think we want to play back-of-the-barn with you?”
Voren looked up at her in shock and opened and closed his mouth in a silence a few times before stammering:
“You mean– you mean your mother really is missing?”
“I told you, didn’t I?” Tam sighed.
“It’s all for real?”
Tam answered by smacking him hard on the back of the head.
Voren got to his feet and brushed the hair out of his face.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “It’s just when Tam came to me and said he needed help with two girls… I mean, usually when he comes to me and wants help with two girls…”
Korina looked pointedly at Tam. Tam shrugged.
“It’s a thing we do, ay?” he explained. “A couple nice kits in a tavern, they fancy a little flutter, so off I pops to get my friend the dark wizard. A little flash of fire, a little orc-talk, makes ’em feel like they’re on an adventure and makes the evening go by a little faster. It’s all in good fun, we never stay where we ain’t wanted. But I told you this weren’t one of them jays, you turnip-head!”
“Well, you woke me up chattering on about these two kits you met!” Voren snapped, his face flushing even darker. “I weren’t even awake and you were halfway through their life story!”
“Go away!” Korina shouted at them, pointing to the door.
“Wait,” Voren pleaded. “Let me help, for real. I lost my parents when a storm wrecked their ship on the Stranglethorn coast. Maybe if someone had been looking out for them, they could have made it to port safe, but no one was there to help them. No one should have to end like that. Let me help you look for your mother. Please.”
Korina and Elice traded a look. Korina sighed and turned back to the boys with folded arms.
“All right, but get one thing clear in your heads: the only ‘part’ of either of us you are going to see is my fist in your faces if either one of you tries that ridiculous tavern-talk again.”
“I promise,” said Voren. “No more of our games.”
Korina nodded and gestured him to the table. He took his seat meekly.
Tam got up under Korina’s glare.
“Lesson learned,” he pleaded. “I’ll make sure folk are awake before gam to ’em.”
Korina held up a warning fist. Tam bowed low. She sighed and let him sit at the table as well.
Elice set bread and cheese on a board and poured out mugs of water. Together, she and Korina recounted what had happened in the past two days, ending with their urgent need to learn what Maza could tell them about the orcs who had taken their mother.
“I’ll talk to her,” Voren promised, “but it may not be easy. My folks traded with the orcs across the sea and I learned the language they used there, but there are different tribes and clans and they don’t all talk the same. I’ll do the best I can.”
“Anything we can learn may help,” Korina said. She sighed and added: “If she still wants to talk to us. If she’s even still there.”
The boys waited at the edge of the farmyard while Korina saw to the sheep and Elice packed a bag with food and supplies. Voren practiced conjuring balls of flame and dousing them in the drinking trough until Korina stopped him with a dangerous look. He and Tam instead took to punching each other on the shoulder.
Korina slipped on her new cloak and tied it close. It felt good in the morning chill. She caught Elice fingering the unfinished fringe of her own cloak with a pained look, but Elice put a brave face on and slipped the cloak over her sturdiest dress.
Before the golden light of the sunrise had passed into the blue of a clear day, the four of them were setting out towards the woods. Korina had her father’s sword tucked through her belt on one side and a hatchet on the other, with her father’s shield slung over her back. Tam was armed with his same old knife while Voren had a plain wooden staff. Elice had a kitchen knife in her bag, but kept her devotion book in her hand.
They made their way with caution down to the clearing by the stream. The traces of the previous day’s struggle were still to be read in the pebbly bank, but there was no sign of Maza or her wolf. Korina strode into the center of the clearing and heaved a frustrated sigh. She peered into the green gloom of the trees all around, but it was hard to see anything.
“I suppose that’s all you could expect of an orc,” she said.
At that moment there was a sound of rustling leaves from the edge of the clearing. The four of them turned to look and saw an orc woman drop down from a leafy branch and fall into a crouch on the streambank. A wolf padded out from behind a fallen log and let out a low growl.
“Is that her?” Voren asked.
“I think so,” Korina said, shaking her head. “Orcs… Her name was Maza. The wolf is Kobu.”
Voren stepped to edge of the stream with hands outstretched and spoke a few orcish words. Maza answered him, coming forward cautiously. They began to speak, haltingly and relying on gestures and a few words in the common tongue. After a minute, Maza leapt the stream and whistled to Kobu to come lie down near her. She and Voren came face to face and began to talk more earnestly while the others gathered close to them. It was clear that it was a struggle for them to understand one another, but a piece at a time, Voren relayed Maza’s story to the rest of them:
My name is Maza, daughter of Griska. I am on a mission.
In the days before, my kin worshiped the spirits of the sun and the sky, the earth and the water. We spoke to them and they were our allies. Then in the days of war we abandoned the spirits and found new allies among the demons of the lower darkness. The demons brought us strength, but also madness. Some of my people still follow the demon way, but my kin have turned back to the old ways of the spirits.
The demon-worshipers give their own blood in sacrifice to summon demons into our world. The mightiest of the demon-worshipers created vessels to focus the blood magic and summon even greater demons. My kin have destroyed many of these vessels, but some still exist. I am on a mission to find them and destroy them. There are others like me in the world, seeking the vessels, but we each travel alone.
The orcs of Blackrock follow the demon way. They hold one of the vessels. I was keeping watch on them and looking for a chance to destroy the vessel. Several days ago, a large raiding party set out from Blackrock Mountain, while a small company of demon-worshipers snuck down the valley into this forest. I followed them and saw them take the human woman from the sheep-barn. They brought her here and made camp.
She got free from her bonds and wounded one of the demon-worshipers in the leg, but they caught her again before she could flee. They left the wounded one here. I stayed to watch. I hoped that they would send one or two back to bring the injured one to their new camp. I wanted to pick them off a few at a time. But if they have sent no one by now, then they will not. They have left the injured one to die.
They went down the stream. With a prisoner, they will be slow and easy to track. We must find them and kill them and destroy the vessel.
Voren looked up at the rest.
“I know what she is talking about,” he said. “We call the demon-worshipers ‘warlocks’. It is the first thing the mages taught us in our lessons. Demon-power is easy to wield, but it comes at a price. Any mage who starts down that path is cast out from the Order and shunned. They warned us of how dangerous warlocks and their magic can be.”
“What are they going to do with our mother?” Korina demanded.
Voren and Maza talked a little more and Voren related:
They will drain her blood to summon a demon. They will kill her, and the demon will be made stronger by consuming her life. But the ritual is slow. If we find them in time, we can stop them and save the woman.
“We have to find them,” Korina said.
“You want to fight a pack of orc warlocks?” Voren exclaimed.
“Of course we don’t want to,” said Elice, standing next to her sister. “But you heard her. We have to stop them. We have to get our mother back. We have to at least try.”
“We killed one orc yesterday,” Korina added.
“Four on one,” Tam noted, “and that one already wounded.”
Korina shot him a look. Tam shrugged.
“Didn’t say I weren’t coming, ay? I’m with you to the end. Just thought I’d make mention of how we’re all probably going to die is all. Now let’s get going while yer ma still has a chance.”
Korina took Voren by the shoulders and looked into his eyes.
“I know this isn’t what you were counting on when you came down from the city this morning. You’ve done what we asked. We can’t ask you to risk your life for us, but if you come we’ll have a better chance. And that goes for you, too, Tam. I mean it. Neither of you has to do this with us.”
Tam stood next to Elice and folded his arms. Korina looked back at Voren.
Voren sighed and leaned on his staff.
“I know I started badly,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean I’m not serious about helping you. When I signed on as an apprentice mage I knew that meant someday being called on to fight for people who need my help. I didn’t think it would come so soon, but I’m ready. Let’s go save your mother.”
“Ask Maza,” said Elice. “I know what she said, but still, we should ask her.”
Voren exchanged a few words with Maza. The orc woman stood up straight and looked at the humans.
“We go,” she said in the common.
“Yes,” Korina agreed. “We go.”
Maza led them through the forest, following the course of the stream. At first, Korina could not see the track Maza was tracing, but soon she began to notice things– footprints in soft sand, snapped twigs, patches of ground scuffed bare of fallen leaves. Every now and then, Maza would point something out and speak a few words in orcish. Some Voren translated, such as: “A struggle,” or “Filled waterskins,” or “Stopped for a piss.” Others he let go by.
They traveled all morning, as fast as they could. Voren and Elice often fell behind, but Korina made sure to halt the group until they caught up. The first few times she had to gesture and mime to make Maza understand Wait but after that, Maza learned the word and started keeping an eye behind her to not get too far ahead. The day grew warmer, even in the shade of the woods, and they were soon all sweating and pushing up their sleeves. Kobu panted and took frequent drinks from the stream.
A little past midday they stopped for a quick rest just below some rapids. The stream had grown into a little river by then, running clear over a rocky bed. Tam and Voren eagerly tore into the bread and cheese Elice brought out from her bag. She offered some to Maza, who took a little of the cheese and nibbled doubtfully at it, but mostly ate dried meat and some crusty bread from her own pack.
Maza offered a little of her meat to Korina. Korina took the little hard scrap and sniffed at it, then tried it in her mouth. It was salty and a little sweet with a hint of old leather. Trying to chew the little piece made her teeth hurt and she grimaced as she tried to work at the tough meat. Maza watched her, a smile slowly spreading her lips to reveal her fangs until it turned into a low, rumbling laugh. Korina glared at Maza, but then couldn’t help but laugh herself.
Voren sat down near where Elice had settled herself on a rock. He pointed at her devotion book, tucked beside her.
“You’re a priest?” he asked.
“An acolyte,” she answered. “I have a few more years of training before I can stand with the priests.”
“I had a friend at the orphanage who’s studying to be a priest. We didn’t have many books there, but she and I went through all of them. She’s an acolyte at the cathedral now. She got taken on about the same time I got my apprenticeship with the Order. We were lucky, both of us. Most of the orphanage cubs end up doing drudge work or on the street.”
“Like Tam,” said Elice. Voren smiled.
“Tam could have work if he wanted it,” he said. “He’s smarter than he lets on, but he doesn’t like being under anyone’s thumb.”
Elice looked over to where Tam was trying to get Kobu to fetch a stick.
“It’s strange to think you grew up together,” she said. “You don’t talk like he does.”
“No one talks like Tam,” said Voren. He glanced sidelong at his friend, then added in a whisper: “It’s mostly fake.”
“Because it’s what people expect of street cubs. If everyone thinks he’s just a fast-talking urchin, no one notices how much thinking he’s doing.”
Elice washed her hands in the stream.
“Is that what you’re doing, too?” she asked. “With your ‘Darkflame’ act?”
Voren looked down sheepishly and sighed.
“That’s just for the girls. It’s a game, you know? Everyone plays them, cubs, kits, and all.”
Elice smiled at him as she gathered up her pack again.
“Not all of us,” she said. “When Kori said she’ll beat you if you try any of that nonsense again, she wasn’t playing.”
Voren nodded in silence.
“Besides,” she added, “being who you are makes you so much more interesting than pretending to be someone you’re not.”
They kept following the track through the forest along the riverbank. It veered wide to skirt the little cluster of cottages around the Westfall bridge, then returned to the river. As the afternoon wore on, Korina called a halt and waved a winded Voren close.
“Ask her why the orcs went so far,” she demanded. “Why didn’t they stop before now?”
Voren had a short conversation with Maza and explained:
“The ritual takes a long time, and it can’t be disturbed. They wanted to get far away from any humans before they stopped.”
Korina nodded at the answer and gestured for them to press on.
The sky had begun to turn to late-afternoon pale when Maza suddenly threw up a hand and grunted, then leaned down close to the ground to examine a few muddy footprints. They were just by one of the outlying assarts and the orcish party had been moving through a narrow strip of woods between the river and the fields of the farm. Maza pointed at the tracks and spoke in her tongue, which Voren quickly translated:
“They stopped here. They hid. Then they attacked.”
Maza touched a tree trunk, then took Voren’s hand and pressed it to the wood.
“Magic,” he said. “And strong. Someone cast a powerful spell here. Magic like that leaves traces.”
“You can feel that?” Elice asked. She touched her hand to the tree and immediately snatched it back. “Yes,” she murmured, “something very dark.”
Korina touched the treetrunk. It just felt like a tree to her.
“This is the Stonefield farm,” she said. “I helped Mama deliver some sheep here last year.”
Tam crouched down and crawled towards the edge of the woods.
“Something happened here,” he whispered back to them, “and it weren’t nothing cheery.”
Elice was about to say something, but Korina was already moving. She burst through the underbrush and out into the field, drawing her sword and reaching for her shield as she did. Maza was immediately behind her, fitting an arrow to her bow, and Tam, Elice, and Voren came scrambling behind them.
The field had been freshly plowed for the spring planting and there was no mistaking the trail that went charging across the furrows of loose earth. Heavy feet had pounded their way to the door of the cottage and into the barn.
“Mama!” Korina shouted as she ran to the cottage.
The door was standing open. Inside was a mess of smashed benches and shattered earthenware. A lump of bread dough was turning dry and crusty on the floor. Korina bolted into the other room, found it empty, then ran back outside and pointed to the barn with the tip of her sword.
Tam jumped to the edge of the closed door and looked nervously at Korina. Korina placed herself in front of the door, sword and shield at the ready. Maza stood beside her, bow drawn, and Kobu stood at her feet tensed to pounce. Voren took a stand behind Korina holding his staff at the ready. Elice crouched behind Tam.
Korina nodded. Tam hauled the barn door open wide and they peered into the darkness beyond.
Continued in Chapter 6: Blood and earth