Cold water rushed over Gillian’s hands as she scrubbed and worried the thin fabric of her undergarment in the stream. Turning the cloth to inspect her progress on the rust-colored stain, she frowned and dropped her panties back to the water with a slapping noise. Shoving the material under, she bunched and continued to scrub until the chill bite of the mountain run-off flushed her skin. Only when her fingers were stiff and her arms were aching did she abandon her assault and lean back on her heels with a sigh, allowing the cloth to trail from her fingertips in the current.
She could feel their presence at the stream. They were maybe fifty or so feet away and they were all in a group, talking, laughing. When the wind was right, she could just almost hear what they were saying. Gillian wanted to ignore them, to pretend that she was alone so she could enjoy the early morning sun on her back, but the current drew her eyes, and before she realized what she was doing—she was staring.Read More
Gillian’s focus on the older woman was so intent that she only became aware by degrees that another woman had taken notice of her poor attempt to eavesdrop. She did not know how long the woman had been watching her, but she chose to face her down without apology. Lifting her gaze, Gillian met the icy glare of the haughty brunette. Then, as if in slow motion, she watched as the woman sneered and turned toward the others to whisper something accompanied with gestures in Gillian’s direction. A moment later, the women were laughing and twisting around to look.
The thin bravado Gillian had worked all morning to cultivate came crashing down around her and she lowered her eyes to the ground, her cheeks flaming. She berated herself for exposing her vulnerability to the vultures who were even now eating her alive. Closing her eyes, she struggled to concentrate on her breathing. She inhaled through her nose until her lungs were filled with the crisp forest air, and then she held it before releasing her breath through her mouth. Realizing they might still be watching her, she threw herself once again into her scrubbing as if she would wear the delicate fabric down into nothing and wash away the morning with it.
Over the next few moments, the hum of the stronghold, the smashing of a smith’s hammer on steel, and the growling of two orcs working out a personal dispute somewhere behind her began to occupy Gillian’s awareness as she made a solid effort to put her humiliation out of her mind. Needless to say, her attempt to regain a sense of dignity was in vain as her eyes were drawn back to the group only a short while later.
Trish, with her laundry basket in hand, was making her way toward the group. As she grew near, Gillian saw the women beckon for her to join them. Then she watched as the women adjusted their positions to allow room for Trish to be added to their circle. Sweet, innocent Trish. An unexpected pang of jealousy struck Gillian so hard that she began to feel a bit lightheaded. They had welcomed Trish with warmth and smiles. Gillian tried to return her focus to the task in front of her, but ended up just watching the water rush against the rocks.
Lost in the soft white noise of the rapids, Gillian did not notice Trish’s proximity until her shadow fell over her shoulder. Startled, Gillian hurried to bunch her stained panties into her palm before Trish could see them.
“I didn’t conceive either.” Trish plopped herself down next to Gillian without waiting for an invitation, set her basket to the side, and got right to work on her own wash. “You know, some women have though, as far as anyone can tell. Their cycles stopped. Birkita’s daughter, the red-head? She’s one of ‘em.”
“Trish, why…what are you doing?”
“Hmm? What do you mean? Gossiping?”
“No, I mean why are you talking to me? When—” Gillian almost glanced toward the group again but caught herself.
Trish turned to Gillian, her laundry forgotten. “Look. You were the first person to talk to me when no one else would.” She shrugged. “Why wouldn’t I talk to you?”
Gillian gave Trish a sort of half smile before turning her eyes back to the water, unsure of what to say. She began wringing out her wash when a thought struck her. “Trish, those women…how will they know who the father is?”
“Oh. Uh,” Trish frowned. “I suppose they won’t.”
Gillian was surprised that Trish did not seem bothered, but fell silent as the implications began to unravel in her mind: a single orc could potentially father several children by different women, thereby making the children siblings. However, as it would be difficult to tell which orc had fathered them, their last names would come from their mothers. But it would be impossible to separate the children who were blood related from those who were not.
Gillian’s eyes grew wide as the simplicity of it dawned on her. “Trish, the clan is family.”
Trish glanced up from her work. “I don’t follow.”
“Trish, the whole clan—if the children could all be siblings, then the orcs could all be fathers.”
Trish shook her head. “I doubt they would all be fathers, Gill.”
“No but they would, see? If none of the fathers are known, then all of them are possible fathers. Think about it. It would be the one thing that would unite the clan above all else. Haven’t you seen the way they cooperate with one another? They are made for war, Trish. How else would that even be possible?”
Trish glanced up at Gillian but did not say anything.
Gillian resumed her wringing. She had to admit there was at least one problem with her conclusion. Fire-axe’s present situation aside, it must pose a problem for orcs to find their mates in general. If she was right, adults would always have to find their partners outside of the clan or risk inbreeding. She tried to imagine orcs courting but the sudden visual of a muscle-bound orc on bended knee, holding a bouquet of flowers in offering made her snort.
“Have you told Valthurg yet?”
“Told what? …Oh.” Gillian sobered. “No.”
Trish looked surprised. “Do you think he’ll be upset?”
“It’s not that.” Gillian’s brows knit. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
Trish nodded and placed her hand over Gillian’s.
Impatient, Gillian pulled away. “You don’t understand—it’s not like that. He won’t hurt me. He’s not—” Gillian shook her head. “He doesn’t make me do anything I don’t want. He’s even been teaching me some self-defense.”
Trish sat listening.
“You know what? I’m going to tell him. I’ll tell him today.”
Trish reached over and rubbed Gillian’s back. “It’ll be fine. It sounds like he might be disappointed, but it’ll be fine.”
Gillian nodded, then smiled, grateful for Trish.
Having finished washing and wringing their laundry, Gillian and Trish gathered their wet bundles into their baskets and began heading back toward the settlement. As they grew near, the hairs on the back of Gillian’s neck began to stand on end as if she could feel someone’s eyes on her. While listening to Trish tell her a joke she had missed the night before, Gillian searched their surroundings for the source of her discomfort. She was about to give up and attribute her unease to paranoia, when she found him.
Gruul. His eyes glinted orange and set him apart from the shadows where he stood, unmoving, beneath an awning across the square. His jaw was clenched and his upper lip curled into a sneer.
As the path led Gillian and Trish closer, Gillian could see that his posture was stiff and he held his weight with the support of an axe; his fingers were ashen as they gripped its handle. Gillian could read the threat in his eyes—she could see that his rage boiled close to the surface—but she doubted he would risk attacking her in the open with so many to witness him do it.
“It’s a cucumber, Gill, get it? Cu-cum-ber?”
Gillian’s thoughts froze. She opened her mouth, and then closed it again.
“You weren’t listening, were you? I asked you what is long and hard and has ‘cum’ in it.”
“I’m sorry, it’s just—”
Gillian’s head snapped up. “How did you—?”
“I saw you watching him. And it’s not like it’s a secret that you gave him that limp.”
Gillian did not know what to say. “Trish, he’s vile. Why do they even tolerate him?”
Trish shrugged. “His tracking skills.”
“Trish!” Gillian stopped walking.
“What?” Trish rolled her eyes. “Okay, fine. So, apparently, he was the sole reason that Fire-axe found Deathfang after they—” Trish hesitated. “Well, you know what they did.”
“Massacred Fire-axe’s women.”
“Right. So when the males returned from what would be their last hunt of the year, everything was in disarray. The damage had already been done, but Deathfang had vanished. After a while, tracks were found that led into the stream, so the orcs began scouring the banks on either side looking for where they emerged. Some of the orcs even considered that Deathfang might have pulled themselves from the water into the trees. Can you imagine? So they began searching the trees as well. Meanwhile, Gruul thought escape through the stream was too obvious, so he began searching alone in the opposite direction. As he searched, snow began to fall. But as much as he fought it, in a matter of hours the severity of the storm forced him to seek shelter. Just when he began to think the Deathfang orcs were made of shadows—”
“He found a print.”
“Yes! The print was half-filled with snow, but it wasn’t old. Gruul knew that a storm that bad would force any flesh and bone creature to seek shelter. They were close.”
“So he returned for reinforcements and Deathfang met their end?”
“Mmhmm. You sounded like you were getting a little carried away there. Come on, let’s go this way. I would rather he not see how awed you are by him.”
“Okay, fine. But don’t you think it’s kind of amazing that he was the only one who thought to look in the opposite direction?”
“No. No, Trish, I do not. He was probably trying to avoid a confrontation. He certainly was not trying to be noble.” Gillian scoffed. That was Trish for you—always trying to find the good in people.
Gillian was shaking her head at her hair-brained friend when her foot caught on an exposed root and sent her careening into a massive stone-gray orc. She scrambled to regain her footing, but her breath caught in her throat when she felt the orc wrap his thick fingers around her wrist. In the time it took for her to realize he meant to restrain her, he had already managed to manipulate her fall so that her back pressed snug against his solid body and his trunk of an arm held her caged there.
“What do we have here?”
Gillian squared her shoulders. These orcs only seemed to understand one thing. “If you want to keep that hand, you’ll release me.”
“Is that so?” The orc’s smirk spread into a wide grin and he leaned in close. “And are you going to be the one to do the taking, then?” He laughed.
“Valthurg will do the taking and you know it.”
Gillian’s eyes flew to Trish. She stood rigid with her feet planted. Gillian could see the color had drained from her face and there had been a high tremor in her voice when she issued her threat, but Trish did not flinch as she faced down the stone orc. Gillian was impressed.
The orc took a long moment to consider Trish’s words. He was likely weighing himself against Valthurg and arriving at the inevitable outcome: he was larger but Valthurg was deadly—the odds were not in his favor. He grunted and released his hold on Gillian. Then, with a look of disgust, he turned and trudged away.
Gillian watched the orc retreat into the ale house before she turned back to find Trish doubled over, taking big gulps of air. “Trish! Are you all right?”
Glancing up at Gillian, Trish shook her head. “That could have gone so differently.”
Gillian agreed. “I didn’t think you had it in you.”
“Neither did I. But I think I have to toughen up, you know? Living with orcs?”
“Don’t we all.” Gillian offered a hand to help Trish and then stooped to retrieve her own basket of wet clothes from the grass. She was trying to figure out how to ask Trish how she was holding up, when urgent shouting at the far end of the stronghold drew her attention. She and Trish were both straining to see what the commotion was when a fireball blew straight through the roof of the ale house—the same building the stone orc had just disappeared into.
They heard him before they saw him. Roaring, the stone orc burst through the wooden door and sent splinters of the shattered frame flying in his wake. His coat had caught fire but it seemed a minor annoyance as he wasted no time dropping to the ground and rolling himself through the mud before launching back to his feet. As he broke into a run, he reached for an axe propped near a pile of wood, brandished it above his head, and set off for the main gate, howling for blood. The vapor trailing from his singed coat was all that remained of him as he vanished into the mayhem breaking out across the stronghold.
Black smoke began to flood Gillian’s vision at the same time that the smell of charred wood from the roof of the ale house reached her nose. She saw thick tendrils of it slip from beneath the roof, out through the windows, and curl up like fingers to take hold of the wooden frame sheltering the clay structure. As she stood transfixed, a second and a third fireball blew by, releasing glowing orange embers in their wake that seemed to dance on the wind. With each fireball, the trailing smoke swirled in the air like dragon’s breath, and the blasts, blowing upon impact, were only muffled by the crackling of the spreading fires.
Possessed by practicality, adrenaline soon quelled her disbelief. She remembered Trish who stood rooted in place, her eyes wide. The young woman who had just stared down a brute of an orc twice her size was gone and in her place was a girl, her confidence spent. “Trish!”
Trish’s shoulders trembled. She jumped when another flaming missile crashed through the side of the nearest residence, sending up more debris.
Gillian reached out to frame Trish’s head in her hands and she turned it so that her own face blocked out everything that was happening around them. “Trish!” Gillian willed Trish’s eyes to meet hers. “Find any women you can and help get them to safety!” Trish jerked a nod but Gillian knew she had not heard her. “Trish. Keep it together and we will get through this.” Gillian waited until she saw comprehension hit Trish’s countenance and then she released her and sprinted past.
“Wait! Where are you going?”
Gillian stopped to spare a glance behind her, “to find Valthurg!” She watched for a split second longer to see Trish nod acknowledgement and set off in the opposite direction from the fighting. Then Gillian turned back and launched herself toward the main gate.