My grandmother always said that orcs are misbegotten creatures, with an ancestry more demon than mortal. I’ve never been sure what that really means, but I do know they raid us every year, are barbaric in battle and always break bones to suck out the marrow when they eat.
But more importantly, they are on the move again.
I can hear their guttural voices hollering over the noise of their armour, though I strain to pick out familiar words in their pidgin of a tongue. Barbaric as they are, orcs have no language of their own and along with gold and grain, it is one of the many things they pillage from us. Their stave-wielding shaman is hollering for one of the leaders.
I rouse myself from the dense heather where I am lying among its woody stalks. Wind cuts knife-sharp against my damp skin. Feathery rain, barely more than a mist, has been a constant since dawn and has since seeped through my mud-mottled cloak and battered second-hand boots.
We have been tailing the orcs for days, though most of the other scouts have returned with reports. We have counted the colours of at least four, maybe five, tribes; it is hard to make out the detail of their warpaint at this distance. There thirty eight of their crude hide tents, but most do not sleep sheltered. From the number of cooking fires we tallied up, I reckon there are forty three score of them.
Either way, I never thought there were so many orcs before. Fifty can torch a village and I dare not think what they can take.
They have been amassing here, huddling their tents around the stone table. Based on the rust-red stains on its pale stone surface, we had first guessed it an altar for dark rites but it is simpler than that. Brutal and bickering by nature, the orcish race cannot maintain a stable hierarchy and their tenuous alliances seem to rely on the crude table. It is no so much round as having had its corners hewn off. Without a head to it, there is no single seat of authority for them to fight over.
The grey-skinned horde ripples, turning. Squinting, I can make out the shape of a broad, sallow-skinned orc wearing a tasselled boar-nosed helm. His tattered red cloak billows over a tarnished cuirass. The shaman limps to him and speaks, his wild gesticulations exaggerated by the drape knotted sheepskin on his back. They appear to be breaking off with a group of twelve or so. I shift closer, fractionally leaning forwards, heather stalks brushing against my face. I know it makes little difference, but I helps me focus. I catch the words for gift and lake on the wind.
Sore muscles, numb from the cold and the long hours of inaction, complain as I move them again, shuffling through the heather. I need to move swiftly, though the need for silence is lessened. The vague misty drizzle of the morning is spluttering into true rain and scudding clouds are blotting out the sun.
The land ahead dips into heathland of long moorgrass and prickly gorse, less than ideal for hiding, especially on the steeper, drier slopes, but there is the possibility of the boggy edges of the mere. The wind is also picking up, but I should be able to stay downwind of them.
Scrambling through the dense grass, I keep more or less parallel to the orcs. My boots ooze mud with ever step and my clothes cling to me, but I am still swifter. I drag my wet sleeve over my rain-splattered eyes.
I arrive before them and flatten myself within the bank of rushes. The waterfowl on the far side of the mere sense their approach before me and the scatter in a flurry of beating wings and disgruntled chittering. And then I hear the the orcs, voices spitting curses and armour jangling. It is a moment before I let myself look up.
The shaman is looking directly at me. I stop breathing. He cranes his neck. I imagine his beady eyes darting as he examines the rushes.
Water trickles down my face. The back of my neck itches. I remain motionless, muscles knotting into place.
His shoulders shrug in a scoff and his tusks twist as though smirking.
My heartbeat thunders in my ears. Too loud. Pale wisps of breath escape my lips.
A curlew keens from across the mere. The shaman turns and gives an answering call, the sound all the more long and eerie and piercing from his normally guttural throat.
Relief floods me, though I dare not relax.
The shaman waves his gnarled stave over the wide water. His tusked mouth bellows a repetitive chant as his companions ululate. Over and over, he calls for Vivienne. He unties a chalice from his belt and dipping it into the mere, he fills it. He passes it to the orc with the boar helm, dark red liquid splashing from it.
A sudden scent of blood, thick and tinny, overwhelms me. I swallow, struggling for breath as gooseflesh ripples through me.
My liege will want to hear about this. I need to be closer.
I shuffle through the long moor grass toward the mere, trusting the agitating wind to mask my movement. I unbuckle my near-empty satchel and slip it under a clump of deer grass. Though I know it would make little difference, I pull my damp cloak closer. Steeling myself, I disappear into the mire, stifling a gasp from the shock of the cold, brown-choked water. Earthy, acrid, the scent of the bog fills my lungs.
Half submerged and mostly hidden, I weave closer and watch.
Judging from the dark stains around the mouths of the orcs, they have drunk from the unholy vessel. They bristle with weapons and carry on their backs shields painted with various grinning, dead-eyed beasts. I see now that their arms and armour are finer and less battered than that of the other orcs. They have gold twisted about them, coiled around their arms and tied into their matted hair. There is one in a pale, hooded cloak, taller than the rest. That one wears only silver. An involuntary shudder runs through me as I remember rumours of the White Phantom.
The tallest of them I recognise from a raid two years ago. He still carries the leaf-shaped sword that nicked my brother when he was running away. The wound was shallow and barely bled. We all thought it would heal, but it festered and the rot killed him. I carry his screams with me still.
The voice of the shaman crescendos, painfully raw in its screaming and then they are all quiet, unsettlingly so for orcs.
The one with the boar helm and red cloak steps forward and standing at the edge of the water, he tears from himself his armour. Large-linked mail and crude plates clatter to the earth. He wades into the shallows and kneels. His companions watch on, tense and silent. The one in the pale cloak clutches the arm of another.
I am not sure what we are waiting for, but I find myself holding my breath in anticipation. Though rain continues to pour from the sky, the sound seems muted. The waterfowl no longer chitter and there is a stillness even from the midges.
The water by the orcs roils and riles, as though something unseen is thrashing beneath the surface.
A single ray of sun lances through the clouds and from the murky depths of the mere emerges a human form. Her gown glistens like gold-threaded samite. A patchwork cloak of long, matted hair of many colours falls from her shoulders. Her hair cascades down her back in a tangle of writhing serpentine locks, crowned by a constellation of yellow bog asphodel and bright red sundew. A fine filigree of turquoise veins trace under her water-clear skin and I can see the glint of pale pink scales towards her temples, her wrists and the collar of her gown. I am not near enough to make out her features, but I imagine her with darkly sunken eyes and wide, red mouth.
The orcs fall to their knees.
My ears strain to follow the rise and fall of their voices. The lady from the lake speaks in tones aberrant, as though a throat and tongue and teeth were alien to her. She gestures in a bonelessly fluid motion. I can hear the hollow brattling of the beaks and bones that hem her cloak. Light halos her, reminding me of the curling tendrils of sundew. The waters seethe.
From beneath the mere, the kneeling orc pulls a sword. Water clings to it, falling from it in unnatural ropes. He unsheathes it from the scabbard and its blade is a solid black, with a glasslike sheen. He marvels at the sword, clawed hand playing along its sharp. He arcs it and holds it aloft before returning it to the scabbard.
Wind ripples the water’s surface and carries with it the words of the woman: “…the sword of stone will keep the bone cage of your body safe. It will breach battles for you, as you take again this sceptred isle.”
I want to bolt, leap from the bog and run back to my liege, to wooden walls and rush-strewn floors. I take in the rest of the ritual, noting the slight nod to one of the orcs as the woman melts into the mere again and the triumphant roar of the orcs as they march away, but my mind is racing. My throat dries. I can smell blood again and the screams of my brother ring in my ears.
I flounder to solid earth. Hands shaking, I fumble for my satchel and wolf down the last of my cheese and stale bread, tasting mud and mire on my lips, desperate for the food to calm me.
We have watched them for days. We have seen them spill blood for sport and rut like cats. We have seen their numbers swell, seen them mend armour and fletch arrows and hammer swords. But none of us dared give thought or voice to what we feared the most.
And now, to hear it so plainly.
Summer has always brought with it raids from the orcs and autumn their return to the wastes. For generations they have taken from us, but they have always left us our land. And now they want that too.
I struggle to my feet as wind rushes past me, chilling the me to the quick.
They are coming.