The Face of the Enemy (Book Excerpt)

Cleaning up the mess took days.  Of the roughly 400 elves, humans and gnomes who had participated in the Battle of Leira, at least a hundred and fifty of them were casualties, which included Yathar’s axe slice because it required stitches, but not the minor bleeding wound that the goblin’s blade had given Shaundar, because it did not.  Half the city seemed to be burnt or damaged.  When the Scro Fleet had taken over, they had assaulted the city from orbit.  This would have counted as a war crime in the Elven Navy, and the perpetrators would have been court martialled, but apparently this was par for the course in scro rules of engagement.

Fortunately the civilian casualties had actually been minimal.  Those bunkers that Commander Aravel had referred to sheltered most of the populace, and much of the city damage, Shaundar later learned, was from the Orcish forces trying to dig or burn them out.

The Realmspace Fleet arrived later on the day of the battle and captured the Scro fleet in orbit around Selune.  Shaundar was trying not to be a little cross that none of those who had fought planetside were being offered any of the prize share, when they did all the hard work.

The elven military was divided into three groups; one to put out the raging fire in the dockyards so that ships could land, one to gather up the wounded and the dead, and one to guard the approximately 300 prisoners.  This was the one consolation for their high casualty rate; the orcs had done worse.  Shaundar was, surprisingly, assigned to guard detail.  He and Yathar were specifically directed to watch the Scro Commander.  “He’ll respect you more because you captured him,” Uncle Madrimlian explained when he landed to aid with the clean-up efforts.  “We’re learning more about them.  It’s cultural.  His honour demands that he obey you, since it’s you he surrendered to.  We’ll have less trouble this way.”  He then smiled and clapped Shaundar on the shoulder.  “Good job on that, incidentally.”

Shaundar was not fond of guard detail.  He would rather have aided the wounded.  The duty of tension and patience did not suit him well.  He did his best to get some reading done but he could feel the eyes of the captive boring into him while he scanned the page without really seeing it.

The Commander was big, even for one of these scro; fully seven and a half feet tall.  His skin was a burnt sienna colour, and stripped of his studded leather armour, his enormous, muscular arms, easily bigger around at the forearm than the thickest part of Shaundar’s thigh, were crossed with many long peach-shaded scars; whether from bladed weapons or the claws of some animal, Shaundar didn’t know.  His pointed lupine ears were pierced like all the other sailors that Shaundar knew, including himself, and the piercings were the standard golden rings; which, traditionally, had enough value in gold weight to pay for a spacer’s funeral.  He also had a shellback tattoo on his shoulder – a gammaroid perched on its hind legs – symbolizing that he had been through the phlogiston between crystal spheres.  He was wearing a rough sleeveless tunic under that armour.  It was black and the image at its center was coloured red, forming another one of those strange orcish runes.  This one consisted of four vertical lines side-by-side, with two vertical lines, separated by a space, beneath them.  The same design was echoed in patches on his armour, the backs of his gauntlets, and it was even carved into his tusks and enhanced with gilt.  This was the only ornament to his tusks that he bore, though Shaundar had now seen many who encrusted theirs with jewels and other decorations.

Captivity seemed to suit the scro about as well as guard duty suited Shaundar.  He acted to Shaundar’s eyes much like a caged tiger, pacing back and forth in the limited Leiran jail cell, his massive legs striding across the space in two steps and his steel-toed boots clomping noisily even on the stone floor; back and forth, back and forth.  Around his neck, a necklace of different sized and shaped teeth bounced against the top of his breastbone with each step.  He swung his arms out to the sides to stretch his shoulders, and barely had enough room.  His black, braided hair almost brushed the eight foot high ceiling.  He scratched impatiently at the neatly-trimmed beard on his chin, now accompanied by black stubble on his cheeks where he had not intended a beard to grow.  Since elven men did not grow facial hair, Shaundar found this mildly fascinating.

After a time, the scro surprised him by speaking.  In that same thickly accented, but perfectly correct Elvish, he inquired, “So, how old are you anyway, lad?”

Shaundar did not think it prudent to respond.

He shrugged.  “Hard to tell with you elves,” he admitted.  That booming bass voice was capable of speaking in surprisingly soft tones.  It echoed through the stone jail building but did not hurt Shaundar’s sensitive ears.  When Shaundar didn’t answer he returned to his pacing.

“But you called me ‘lad’,” Shaundar could not help but point out after a few minutes.

He met Shaundar’s stare with clear, blue eyes that were piercing and intelligent; thoughtful, even.  Something in that look actually reminded him of his own father’s sharp amber gaze.  “I’m getting better at it,” he explained.  “I’ve learned it’s all in the eyes.  Your eyes are those of a boy growing up too fast.”

Shaundar found himself, reluctantly, impressed by the captive’s insight.  “You have me pegged pretty well, sir,” he allowed.

“Still a warrior, though,” the scro nodded, sitting down on the cot that was the cell’s only furniture, which bent nearly double and groaned with the strain.  “There’s blood on your hands, I think.  You would not have hesitated to kill me, and the first time is always the hardest.”

Shaundar said nothing.

“My name is Dorin Bloodfist,” he introduced himself, for all the worlds as if they’d met over drinks at the Leafy Bough.

Shaundar continued to be silent.

The scro looked pained.  “I’m not going to bite you, boy; not here, anyway.  Do me the honour of giving me your name, so that I may tell my clan of the warrior who defeated me.”

Shaundar didn’t think it could do any harm to tell him.  “I’m Shaundar Sunfall,” he said politely, and on an impulse he bowed.  “Your other guard is my blood brother Yathar, and the elf maid who pinned you with the web spell was Sylria.”

He smiled or grimaced at the bow – it was hard to tell with those great tusks – and stood up to return it.  The cot leaped up when his posterior lost contact with it and made a sound like a firecracker.  “An honour, Shaundar Sunfall,” he said.  “We greet each other like this.”  He thumped his chest and then extended his open hand in Shaundar’s direction.  Shaundar returned it.  Dorin Bloodfist nodded once.  Shaundar thought perhaps it was a nod of approval.

“May I make some requests, harak’cha?” he inquired.  At Shaundar’s questioning look, he elaborated, “I don’t think the word has any proper equivalent in the elf tongue.  Loosely, it means ‘honourable foe who has defeated me,’ but that’s really an oversimplification.”

“You can ask,” Shaundar said, “but I can’t promise anything.  I’m just a Lieutenant, sir.”

The scro commander nodded.  “I don’t suppose there’s any chance that I could have my armour, could I?”

“I doubt it,” Shaundar shook his head.

His mouth thinned into a line around the tusks.  “A scro’s honour is bound up in his armour and his axe.  I know there’s no chance of getting my axe – relax, boy, I wasn’t asking – but the armour is a symbol of my clan.  I suppose it’s somewhat like your elven Houses, Shaundar Sunfall.”

Shaundar pursed his lips.  This sounded to him like a trick to improve the scro’s lot so that he was in a better position should he make an escape attempt.  “The armour is covered in spikes and studs,” he pointed out.  “It would make a good weapon.  I don’t think we should allow that, begging your pardon, sir.”

Dorin Bloodfist sighed.  “I give you my word of honour, harak’cha that I will not try to escape while in your custody.  Or that of your blood brother, either,” he added.  His gaze was intense.  Shaundar looked carefully into his eyes and saw only sincerity.

He nodded slowly.  “I believe you,” he said.  “I’ll ask as soon as my shift is done.”

The scro nodded.  “I appreciate that.”  He returned to his pacing.

“You said you had ‘some requests,’” Shaundar asked a few moments later.  “What else?”

Dorin Bloodfist said hopefully, “The others aren’t nearly as important, and I don’t want to sound like I’m whining here, but .  .  .  well, as you can see, this cot does not fit, for one thing.”  He gestured at the still-bent bed frame where he had sat.  “I’d honestly prefer a sturdy hammock if you have one.”

“I’m pretty sure I could arrange that,” Shaundar agreed.  It seemed like common courtesy to him, to arrange a bed the orc could actually sleep in.  “Anything else?”

The scro added, “We’re mostly carnivores.  If there is meat to spare, even jerky or salt pork, I would be glad to have it.”  His request was matter-of-fact, even dignified.

Shaundar nodded again.  “I’ll ask about that too,” he promised.

The scro commander fell silent again with another nod.  Shaundar made an effort to go back to reading, though his heart wasn’t in it.

“You spoke of your blood brother,” Dorin Bloodfist spoke up after several more minutes.  “Is that like a na’kor?”

Shaundar smiled.  “I know enough Orcish, sir, to call out rude insults and swear.  I don’t know that word, I’m afraid.”

He inclined his head in a nonchalant gesture.  “’Blood brother’ would be the loosest translation, I suppose.  You cut your hands and mingle your blood, and you swear an oath.  From then on, your na’kor is your closest family.  He is your brother, your best friend, your comrade-at-arms.  He is treated as one of your family and he can take your clan name.”

Shaundar smiled and nodded.  “Yes, it’s exactly like that,” he concurred.  “But why do you ask?”

Commander Bloodfist chuckled low in his throat.  “Think I’m fishing for something I can use against you, boy?”

“The thought did cross my mind,” he admitted, a little defensively.

The scro shrugged.  “I suppose that’s a reasonable supposition,” he acknowledged, “but it is not my intent.  Dukagsh teaches us to understand our enemy, that we may better fight him.”

“’Dukagsh?’” Shaundar repeated curiously.

“Dukagsh was the founder of our people,” he explained, “the one who taught us to be more than common orcs.  It is said that he was the son of Gruumsh.”  He hesitated and then asked, “You do know who Gruumsh is, don’t you?”

Shaundar nodded.

“Dukagsh was a writer and a scholar,” Dorin Bloodfist elucidated.  “Most scro cite his earliest work, ‘A Scro Manifesto,’ but I am rather fond of his last book, ‘The Art of War.’  It is not dissimilar from your ‘Song of the Blade,’ I think.  He wrote, ‘Understand your enemy, if you mean to fight him.  Learn what drives him, why he fights and what he believes in.  Then you will understand what it is that he believes is worth dying for.  Only then will you be able to achieve true victory.’”

“I fight to defend my home, my family and my People,” Shaundar told him simply.

He smiled, and this time, Shaundar could tell it was a smile.  “Don’t we all, lad.  Don’t we all.”

At that moment, the door of the jail opened and one of the cooks came in with a couple of plates of crackers, cheese and fruit.  “Dinner,” he announced.

“Hey,” Shaundar spoke up, “is there any meat to be had?  Maybe jerky or salt pork if there’s nothing fresh?  Or how about some pemmican?”

The cook blinked at him in surprise.  “I think we still have some chickens,” he told Shaundar, “and I know there’s as much salt pork as you want, though I can’t imagine why you want it.”

“It’s not for me,” he clarified, “it’s for the commander, here.  I guess orcs are mostly carnivores.  I think this would be a lot like gruel to them.”

The scro nodded once.

The cook curled his lip.  “I guess we can find something,” he spat sourly, as though there was a bad taste in his mouth.

“My father always taught me to treat my enemy as I would wish to be treated,” he insisted.

Cocking his head from one side to the other in a gesture of acquiescence, the cook agreed.  “All right, I guess that’s fair.  I’ll be back with some meat of some kind.  Should I leave both plates anyway?”

“Probably,” Shaundar smiled.  “Look at him; I think he needs more food than I do.”

The cook cast a glance into the cell at the massive scro who filled nearly all of it.  “I see your point.  Okay, see you in a while.”  He left.

Shaundar offered him one of the plates.  “Do you want this?”

“I’ll take it,” Dorin Bloodfist accepted.  Shaundar pushed the plate underneath the bars.  The big scro bent down and picked it up.  He ate a couple of the fruit pieces first, then put the crackers and cheese together and ate them in little sandwiches.  They looked very odd in his giant hands, which ended in short claws.  Shaundar set about his own dinner, though he lacked appetite.  Having been subject now to rationing and limited supply, he had learned to eat when he could.  The fruit was sliced peaches, and Shaundar thought they were delicious.

A few minutes later, the cook returned with a jar of salt pork.  “No shortage, like I said.  I hope you like salt.”

“Thank you,” the scro commander said.  “Both of you.”

The cook nodded curtly and left.  Shaundar said, “You’re welcome, sir.”  He passed the jar through the bars.  Dorin Bloodfist ate about half of it and left the other half.  “I’ll eat this later, if you’ll leave it,” he said, and Shaundar nodded.  Absently the scro wiped his fingers on his black uniform trousers.

“So lad,” he inquired, as mildly as if asking for the condition of the weather, “have your leaders decided whether or not they’re going to execute me, yet?”

Shaundar shook his head.  “We can kill easily enough in the heat of battle, but we find executions difficult.  I imagine you’ll probably be marooned somewhere.  Or ransomed back to your people, perhaps.”

He nodded thoughtfully.  “Well, that’s good.  Dukagsh counsels us: ‘Face death bravely and with honour, but do not seek it.’  Or, as he says in his ‘Treatise on Orcish Ethics,’ ‘Yurtrus must come for us all, and we should face Him fearlessly; but do not court Him like a suitor, nor wait for Him like a bride.’”  He considered his words and added, “I suppose you may not know that Yurtrus is our god of death.  Do you long-lived elves have such a deity?”

“Not really,” Shaundar confessed.  “The closest would be Sehanine Moonbow, who guides spirits to Arvandor.”

“Arvandor; yes, your Heaven, your eternal reward,” Commander Bloodfist nodded.  “So what happens to elves who are not worthy of Arvandor, lad?”

Shaundar had never given it much thought.  He imagined that Arvandor was the promise given all elves.  Would there be Tel’Quessir out there who were not worthy of its beauty and perfection?  He supposed that there must be.  Where was Rear Admiral Durothil going to end up, for example?  “I don’t know,” he answered, ruminating on it.  “I never thought about it before.”

“Perhaps you should,” the scro advised.  “You are a warrior; the state of your soul should be of great concern to you.  You might be called to whatever accounting your people are called to at any time.”

Shaundar pursed his lips and nodded.  “Good advice.”  Was he worthy of Arvandor?  By what criteria did the gods judge that?

Dorin Bloodfist narrowed his eyes in deliberation and then said, “Here, lad.”  He took a book from one of the enormous pouches at his belt.  It was leather-bound and thoroughly dog-eared; much loved or much maligned.  “Learn some Orcish aside from swearing and insults.”  He pushed the book underneath the bars.

Shaundar picked it up and looked at it.  Opening it to the first page, he recognized the Orcish word “tarrak,” meaning “war,” and not much else.  “’The Art of War’?” he asked.

The scro prisoner nodded once.

“Thank you,” Shaundar said sincerely.  “I will learn to read it.”  He flipped through it curiously.  It was printed with a brass press; the cutting edge of non-gnomish modern print technology.  Some of the pages were folded over to mark them; others were bookmarked or scored with underlines.  He was intrigued.  He wondered what the passages said that his prisoner was particularly interested in; why he had underlined some paragraphs but not others, why one page had a crease in the corner and another did not.  He suddenly wanted very much to understand what this book was about and why the scro valued it so highly.  He resolved to study Orcish in earnest.

Yathar showed up to relieve him at First Watch, and they shared a pipe together, enjoying the opportunity to relish the higher-quality tobacco since they were unlikely to be called to their stations during their temporary occupation of Selune.  By this time their prisoner was dozing fitfully on the stone floor, having pushed the useless cot as far out of the way as it would go.  “Any problems?” Yathar queried casually as they smoked.

“None,” Shaundar told him honestly.  “Actually, we’ve been having some very interesting conversation.  He’s been teaching me about scro culture.”

“Orcs have culture?” sneered Yathar incredulously.

“We like to think so,” their captive rumbled crossly, cracking an eye.

Shaundar smiled in sadistic amusement at his friend’s startled and embarrassed look.  “Oh, did I forget to mention that he speaks fluent Elvish?” he inquired innocently.  “I should have thought that you would have realized that, given my limited command of Orcish.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” snarked Yathar as he made a rude gesture at his friend.

“Commander Dorin Bloodfist, this is my na’kor, Yathar.”

“Champion,” the scro corrected.  “My title is ‘Champion.’  I am pleased to meet you, Yathar Sunfall.”  He offered that orcish salute.  Yathar returned the greeting somewhat awkwardly.

Their captive sat up and sighed.  “That pipe smells very good,” he confessed wistfully.  “I don’t suppose you would be inclined to share?”

Shaundar brought him the smoking pipe.  Again, it looked very strange in his giant terra cotta toned hand with its short (and carefully groomed) claws, but the scro put the stem in his mouth and drew in smoke with a contented sigh.  His tusks did not seem to interfere, contrary to what Shaundar might have expected.  “You’re a kind-hearted lad, Shaundar Sunfall.  Thank you.”

“I’ll go see if I can track you down a hammock now,” Shaundar told him.  “And I’ll ask about your armour.  Just give that back to Yathar when you’re done.”  He headed out of the jail and looked for the officers.

The city hall had been commandeered as a sort of command post, and the Captains and the other Mithril had set up shop there while they mopped things up.  Shaundar cast a glance at the warehouse that they had selected to use as a prison, since there was not nearly enough room in Leira’s jail for all of their captives, and then a long look at the Temple of Leira, which had been converted into a makeshift triage and hospital.  He thought he should probably stop in there and see how Captain Whitestar was doing, but he was afraid.  What if he hadn’t made it?  And then there was the dread of finding out which of his crewmates were no longer with them.  It occurred to him that he had yet to see Garan.

One thing at a time.  First, armour and hammock.  He headed into city hall.

Captain Yvoleth, the Leiran Guard Captain and Commander Aravel, Admiral Alastrarra, Uncle Madrimlian and his father were there.  Shaundar had never been so happy to see familiar faces.

Quessira,” he said, and saluted.

They looked up from the table they had been studying and Shaundar’s father smiled and his eyes gleamed when he saw Shaundar.  He returned the salute.  “It’s good to see you, lad,” he greeted him with obvious warmth.  Unspoken on his lips were the words Shaundar knew he was thinking:  I’m glad you made it.  I’m glad you’re alive.

“It’s good to see you too, sir,” Shaundar smiled back.  I’m okay, Dad, the smile was meant to convey.  “I have some requests from my prisoner.”

“I don’t think he’s in any position to request anything,” said Admiral Alastrarra sourly.

“It’s not unreasonable, sir,” Shaundar insisted.  “He would like a hammock, for one thing.  The cot in there is useless to him.  He’s just too big.”

The Admiral nodded.  “All right, that doesn’t seem inappropriate.  Go ahead; grab him a hammock, Teu’Ruan.  Anything else?”

“He would like his armour, sir.”

“I’m sure he would,” the Guard Captain sneered sarcastically.

“It’s a matter of honour, he said,” Shaundar continued.  “He said that a scro’s honour is bound up in his axe and his armour, though he knows better than to ask for the axe.  He gave me his oath that he would not try to escape as long as he was under my guard.  And I believe him.”

“Not a chance,” Lord Alastrarra shook his head.  “Too much weaponry at hand, and too much protection should we need to pacify him.”

“Admiral,” Captain Madrimlian spoke up, “perhaps we should consider it.”

The Admiral raised a surprised eyebrow.

“From what I’ve learned about these scro, they take their honour very seriously,” Madrimlian went on.  “He might be more cooperative if we respect his customs.”

The Admiral considered the idea.  “I guess I’ll leave it up to your judgment, Captain.  Why don’t you interview him for yourself?  Bring the armour along and see what you think.”

“Technically it belongs to Shaundar and his companions anyway,” Lord Sunfall reminded them.  “They captured him; his things are their spoils of war.”  He disappeared into the back of the building and came out with that enormous suit of studded leather armour, with its strange orcish rune tooled and dyed red in leather patches at the shoulders.  “Do you want his axe as well?”

“Not yet, sir,” Shaundar gently refused.  “Is he going to be ransomed back to the scro?”

“We haven’t decided what we’re doing with him yet,” his father told him honestly.

“If you do, he’ll need that,” Shaundar explained frankly.  “If you don’t, then I’ll take it.”  He imagined the axe was something like a moonblade.  He didn’t feel right taking it away from a living orc; it just seemed wrong somehow, especially after what Champion Bloodfist had said.  And weirdly, he wasn’t looking to loot by saying he would take it.  It was more a sense that the axe should be safeguarded and respected; something Shaundar knew would not happen if he allowed someone else to claim it.

“Sounds like you’ve got him talking fairly well,” Madrimlian remarked in a voice that sounded a little too casual to Shaundar.

“He realizes I’m young,” Shaundar confessed.  “I think he’s trying to teach me that not all scro are monsters, sir.”  He held up the leather-bound book, still in his hands.  “He gave me this book.  He says it’s called ‘The Art of War,’ and that it was written by Dukagsh, who was a cultural hero.  ‘The founder of their people,’ I believe he said.”

“May I see that?” Madrimlian asked.  Shaundar handed it to him and he flipped through it with great interest.  “May I hold on to this for a while?” the Captain requested.  “I’d like to copy it; this is of great use to Intelligence.”

“Of course, sir,” Shaundar acquiesced.  Uncle Madrimlian pocketed the book.

“Well, let’s go talk to him,” he suggested.

“Yes, sir,” Shaundar nodded.  He saluted the Mithril and fell in step with Captain Madrimlian.  Shaundar cast another long look at the Temple as they passed by it on the way back.

“Captain Whitestar is going to be fine, you’ll be pleased to know,” Madrimlian confided in him with a smile, “thanks to you.  He’s asking for you when you have time, by the way.”

Shaundar was relieved.  “I am very glad to hear it, sir.  I don’t suppose you’ve heard about anyone else?  My crewmates, or the crew of the Light of Arvandor?”

He shook his head.  “I don’t know, Shaundar.  You’ll have to ask at the Temple about that.”

He nodded.  He wasn’t expecting Madrimlian to have an answer; he was just hoping.

They headed back into the jail.

“I’m Captain Madrimlian,” he introduced himself to their captive, who rose to his feet when he came into the jail.  “I’m with Intelligence.”

“Ah,” said the Champion.  “Is my interrogation to begin now?”  He seemed cautious but resigned.

“Well,” said Madrimlian, swinging one of the chairs around to sit on it backwards, “I do intend to question you, of course, but if you’re concerned about torture, don’t be.  I have magical methods of determining the truth of your statements, and even to extract your thoughts if necessary.”

Dorin Bloodfist smirked.  “I don’t know if I find that comforting, or disturbing, Captain.  I suppose I will try to think about anything but the answers to your questions.”

Captain Madrimlian smiled at the corners of his mouth.   “I suppose I would do the same.  I understand you have asked for your armour.”

“I have, Captain.  It’s a matter of honour.”

Madrimlian nodded.  “And you’re not going to attempt to use it as a weapon?”

“I suppose that given the opportunity, I might,” the scro replied honestly.  “But if you’re questioning what I told the lad, here, he is my harak’cha and I have sworn not to attempt to escape while in his custody, nor that of his blood brother, and my word is absolute.”

Madrimlian mulled this over.  “All right then.  Go ahead and give him his armour, Shaundar.”

“I’ll unlock the door,” offered Yathar, standing up with the keyring.

“While we’re at it, you boys might as well take out the cot,” Madrimlian suggested.  “Please step back from the bars, Commander.”

“Champion,” Shaundar corrected.  “He said that his title was ‘Champion’.”

“Champion Dorin Bloodfist, Captain,” the scro introduced himself as he backed away from the cell door with his hands raised.

Yathar opened the door and the two of them removed the cot.  “Do you want me to leave the bedding?” Shaundar asked.

“Please,” the scro Champion confirmed.  So Shaundar separated the bedding and handed it back to the scro, along with his armour.  He smiled and thanked him, and after placing the bedding carefully in a corner, he strapped on the armour with the ease of long practice.  Once so dressed, he seemed a lot more comfortable.  It was a bit like watching a turtle put his shell back on.

“Very well, Captain Madrimlian,” Champion Bloodfist rumbled in that deep basso voice.  “Ask your questions.  I will answer what I may.”

“Let’s start with the ones I don’t think you will answer,” Madrimlian began, sitting down.  “Such as how many more of your ships there are in the sphere?”

The scro leader chuckled.  “I honestly don’t know for sure,” he said with an odd tusked smile.  “About a dozen less now, I would think.”

Madrimlian cast him a thin smile.  “You would be correct.  We scuttled your ships, after we removed the helms for our use.”  He licked his lips and added pointedly, “Except, of course, for the lifejammers, which we destroyed.”

Shaundar shook his head.  Lifejammers were a form of helm that drained life force from their helmsmen instead of magic.  They could therefore be used by anyone, not just those skilled in arcane or divine magic, but they were cursed.  Not only did they drain their victim’s very life energy, but they drove their helmsmen mad, who would then resist all attempts to remove them from the horrible things as it killed them slowly.  They were very often fatal.

Dorin Bloodfist’s mouth thinned into a line.  “I’m glad, Captain.  It is standard procedure to keep one as a backup helm in times of desperation, but I hate the things.”

Captain Madrimlian met his eyes and nodded.  “All right then.  How many troops were under your command?”

“Eight hundred and fifty, including our Marines,” he divulged.  Shaundar exchanged a look with Yathar.  That was an even larger army than they had figured.

“What was your purpose in occupying Selune?” Madrimlian pressed on.

“As you might have guessed, to establish a base of operations close to Toril, and to that flight school you elves are so proud of,” the scro continued in the same frank manner.

“And how are your people going to take your failure, Champion Bloodfist?” inquired Madrimlian slyly.

“Badly,” he admitted.  “We were misinformed, but that would only sound like an excuse to our leadership.  I will make no excuses, should I be returned.”

“There were mages among your troops,” the Captain pointed out curiously.  This was news to Shaundar, who didn’t think that orcs studied arcane magic at all.

“Ogre mages,” Champion Bloodfist nodded.  “Oni, as they call themselves.  And the Warpriests, of course.”

“’Warpriests’?” echoed Madrimlian.

“Priests who also study arcane magic,” he told the Captain bluntly.

“What god do they serve?  Gruumsh?”

The scro smiled again.  “Sorry Captain, I refuse to answer that question.  Our religion is none of your business.”

“Why?” demanded Madrimlian.

He smiled a bit more broadly.  “My father always told me never to discuss religion or politics with an enemy.”

“Wise orc, your father,” the Captain said.

“We prefer to differentiate ourselves from common orcs, Captain Madrimlian,” he returned.  “We are scro, not orcs.  Ar’hakavarn, in your language, I imagine.”

Shaundar considered that.  Hakavarn was Espruar for “orc.”  Translated literally, it came from hakar meaning “enemy,” and vaarn meaning “evil,” which was, in his opinion, an excellent demonstration of just how long the Orcs had made war on the Elves.  Adding the prefix ar to the word changed its meaning to “high orc.”  He reflected that claiming such a name was not unfair, nor unreasonable in the case of the obviously cultured and educated Scro.

“What about politics, then?” the Captain continued.  “What is the name of your leader?”

“I’m sorry Captain,” the scro responded, “but that, too, is none of your business.”

Madrimlian nodded thoughtfully again.  “Overlord is his title, is it not?” he wanted to know.

Dorin Bloodfist nodded once, his huge arms folded across his armoured chest.

“What does the title ‘Champion’ mean?” he demanded, taking a completely different tack.

“I am the military leader of my clan,” Dorin told him.  “The position is chosen by test of arms, usually to the death.”

“So this was the forces of the Bloodfist clan that we have encountered then?” Madrimlian pressed on.

“Yes,” the scro said simply.

“Where is your homeworld, Champion Bloodfist?”

The scro laughed.  “Dukagsh,” he smiled.  “And that’s as much as you will get out of me there, Captain.”

“Yes, ‘Dukagsh’,” Madrimlian pressed.  “I understand that was the name of a cultural hero.”

“Our founder,” the Champion explained.  He made an almost imperceptible gesture in an attitude of reverence.

“Where do the clans come in?”

“Ah,” the scro exclaimed, “that is another question about politics, which I will not willingly answer, Captain.”

Captain Madrimlian did not leave this subject.  “How many clans are there?  What determines your clan membership?”

The large scro remained silent over his folded arms, glowering.

Madrimlian sighed.  “Well, thank you for being mostly cooperative, Champion Bloodfist.”  He stood up.  “I’ll fetch you a hammock.”

“Don’t worry about it, Captain,” the scro leader refused.  “I don’t believe there’s any good spot to hang it in here when I consider it, and I have pillows and a blanket.  Now that the cot is out of the way, that will be more than sufficient, thank you.”

“As you prefer,” the Captain accepted.  He clapped Shaundar and Yathar on the shoulder and added, “Try to get some reverie, lads.”

Av, quessir,” Yathar agreed.  The Captain left them then.

After he had gone, Dorin Bloodfist looked to the boys and asked them, “Do you think that he can really read my thoughts?”

“Yes,” Shaundar admitted, thinking about the training he’d received to conserve his magic at the helm at Aces High.

“That’s interesting,” the Champion remarked.  “I have learned the hallmarks of spellcasting and I did not see him perform any.  Did you?”

Shaundar smiled.  “No,” he agreed.

Yathar put a hand on his shoulder.  “You look like you’re ready to fall over and you’re supposed to be back here for Afternoon Watch.  Why don’t you go get some reverie?  I’ve got things here.”

Shaundar realized that he was, indeed, very tired.  “Okay, I’ll do that.  Good night.  And good night to you, Champion Bloodfist.”

“Good night, lad,” Dorin Bloodfist wished him sincerely.  He sat on the stone floor, pulled the blanket around his body and the pillow under his head, and just like that, he seemed to go right to sleep.

*****

When Shaundar reported for guard duty at the eighth bell of the Mid-Morning Watch, their prisoner was being clapped in irons.  “They’re transferring the prisoners to a camp,” Yathar informed him.  “I understand there is a plan to ransom the Champion back to the Scro.”  He scowled grimly and added, “But the camp is being established by Rear Admiral Durothil.”

Shaundar hitched in his breath.  That could not be good for the prisoners.  He looked to the Champion and cautioned him, “Rear Admiral Durothil is not a kind individual.  Be careful, sir.”

Dorin Bloodfist nodded just once resolutely as they clapped the irons around his wrists.  “I thank you for the warning, Shaundar Sunfall.  Should we ever meet again, I will remember your treatment of me.”  He extended a large orange hand, though the other one followed it due to the handcuffs.  Shaundar took it.  Then they took him away.  He looked like a captured beast in the midst of the elves, all of whom stood at least a full foot and a half shorter than he did, but he marched with his head high and his piercing blue eyes met every pair of eyes in the room.  Sylria helped to lead him away.  “Briefing in ten minutes in the barracks,” she told Shaundar and Yathar directly.

“See you there, then,” said Shaundar with a nod, and he and Yathar headed back that way.  They watched lines of orcs and scro, ogres, goblins, hobgoblins and kobolds, separated by race, being marched into transport barges against the backdrop of the brightening sky.

– from A Few Good Elves (Toy Soldier Saga book 1).

Diane MorrisonDiane Morrison (Sable Aradia) is a non-fiction and speculative fiction author.  Her first National Novel Writing Month project was the Spelljammer novel A Few Good Elves (self-published to e-book format 2012).  Her related short story, “Survivor,” was published in the August 2013 issue of Separate Worlds magazine, and her first non-fiction book, The Witch’s Eight Paths of Power will be published by Red Wheel / Weiser in September of this year.  Catch up on her ongoing Spelljammer novel series, the Toy Soldier Saga, at her website.

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