Sunday, July 24, 2016

The Gift Chapter Nineteen

Don and Shandra found themselves on a dark plain with gray grass swaying listlessly in a thing whistling wind that tugged at the clothes and their exposed skin. Shandra was the first to notice their attire and equipment.
“Dad, we have all our gear! Our clothes, weapons, everything!”
“And that's not right,” Don replied quietly. “We had just the clothes we could throw on and what we could quickly grab. I've got my battle ax and armor and you have your armor and bow as well.”
Shandra stood as if they were traveling for adventure with her light wood and leather elven made armor. Her smoothly muscular arms made nothing of the heavy two-handed weapon she held lightly in one hand. The wind tugged at her red hair but that was the only thing out of place. She showed no signs of having just been in a fight. In this light her white armor with silver trim was a dull gray with black trim.
“Where's Dog?” Shandra asked subdued. “He should have followed us here. For that matter where is here?”
“We're in the shadow-lands and in deep,” Don replied, “If I were trying to lose somebody in here, here is where I would take them.
“I don't know if I have ever been here before as it can shift on you in a single step or changes can just sneak up on you. As long as we stick together we can get home. I don't know how long it will take but usually no time passes in the real world no matter how long you are here. I don't know if that will hold true now when I don't know yet where we will be going. I do have a direction. That way.” Don pointed to their left where a very pale sun or moon might have been trying to shine through the clouds covering the gray sky above them.
After less than a step a hulking savage appeared on the grass before them. It was an orc in full battle armor of the Grossdeutschland slave army and carrying a short heavy spear and shield.
He leaped up ready for battle but Don and Shandra separated a bit giving her room to swing the Dair Maegair. Don already had an arrow nocked and before the orc could gain his feet it was at full draw and ready to wing towards his eye.
“There's no need to fight,” Don said in an even voice. “We are not enemies here. As a matter of fact, I think we can help each other.”
Shandra saw a flicker in the orc's eye, “Don't try it. I dropped you once. I can do it again and this time I know that arrow will move faster than you can.”
The orc took a step or two back. He was still close enough to launch an attack but no longer overtly threatening.
“What do you mean help?” the orc demanded in a pidgin of German laced with Orc.
“Do you know where we are?” Don asked in the common tongue it was a variety of Breton Celtic influenced by several other languages mostly Germanic tongues but many loan words and phrases from Latin and Atlantean.
“I do not know,” the orc answered in the same language. He looked around to get his bearings. The weight of the situation causing his broad ape-like shoulders to visibly droop and the point of his spear lowered to the ground.
“We are in the shadow-lands,” Don told him.
“Hel? Are we dead?”
“I do not think myself or my daughter are dead but we are close to it,” Don paused before continuing.
“I saw you die however before I was overcome by the poison on your claws.”
They were surprised to see the Orc bow his head. “That was ill-done. A man should be able to kill with his weapons or not at all. I am a warrior not an assassin.”
“That is how I can perhaps help you,” Don replied. “I know that you are not orcneas. I know that you are a man who has been changed or your fathers were changed from men into this.”
“This is true.” Myntimur replied, “Some whisper Orcs are men or their children that have been taken by the orcneas and have been changed. It is a -- painful process. Why would you want to help me? Your church says we are damned.”
“That is not true,” Don replied, “The orcneas are damned. They are undead animated by demonic spirits. You are still a man with a soul. I know you have done wrong in your life but you never had the chance to see the right.”
“The church believes that there is a place for men like you who have never had the chance to hear the word of God. I can guide you to the path you must take.”
“You can take him to Purgatory?” Shandra asked surprised.
The orc did not miss the byplay and watched Don closely for his answer.
“No, I can get him only to the path he must take. We could follow it as well but I suspect our bodies would soon follow us into death and we are meant to come back for we are truly still alive.”
“This would not take me to the Hall of Honor I was promised,” the orc replied thoughtfully.
“What is your name? I am Shandra of the Silver-Arm and this is my father Don.”
“You have the look of family,” the orc nodded, “I am Myntimur. Formerly soldier slave to the Grossdeutschland.” He said the last with a hint of humor at his new status. Death had brought freedom.
“Myntimur,” Shandra replied, “We are Tuathe De. We keep our word and never lie about matters of honor. If my father says he can take you to the beginning of the path he can.”
“I have traveled the world.” Shandra said earnestly, “I know of other realms and beliefs but there are only two permanent places of rest for a human soul and your soul is still human. No matter how you might have been changed on the outside. No matter what you may have done. You still have a chance.”
Myntimur's eyes were stubborn and it was difficult to read his expression so much of the humanity had been taken from him. Myntimur even after speaking to him still looked more apelike than human to her eyes. Worse his complexion was a sickly black bruised color like a long drowned corpse. Myntimur's eyes were milky like a corpse as well save for the hard black of the pupil. What was done to their people was an abomination. It was all Shandra could do not to shudder with horror.
“Will this not take you further from your goal?” Myntimur asked shrewdly.
“Yes, without a doubt,” Don replied, “However I would not leave my worst enemy much less an honorable man who was only following orders here without a guide when I know I can eventually find the path he needs.
“Besides, if you are meant to find it I believe you will find it quickly.”
“Me find it?”
“I will guide but you will have to see your path when we come to it. A man must walk that final path alone. I think we were meant to find you here and that we were meant to guide you. That means that other powers are at work. The powers that brewed your poison were those of darkness. Our holy books specifically prohibit such. However, there is another power at work here and that must give us hope we will find the path for you as well.”
“That is wisdom although not one that would be heard from our leaders or shaman,” Myntimur declared. “Guide me and we will find this path together.”
Myntimur, Don and Shandra traveled into the shadow-lands. The wind was bitterly cold and often blowing in their faces. Myntimur was armed as an orcish heavy infantryman. He was wearing a black enameled hauberk of steel scale mail, a helm with laced side plates and supports crossing the top in a 't' while another jutted over his brow. In his left hand he carried a large oval shield black with a white swastika. The shield had five plumbatae clipped to the inside of the shield where Myntimur could reach them quickly. In his right hand he carried a short spear with a long broad blade and a heavy bronze ball on the end.
“You are the one who struck me?” he asked Shandra.
“Yes.” She had the sheath to her  Dair Maegair in her left hand ready for an instant draw and cut but that was just precaution she did not sense hostility from Myntimur.
“You do not look like your father. He carries a lighter weapon and wears metal armor. You have on elvish leather and wood armor. You carry that great sword. It is heavier than it looks.”
“Yes, although he and my mother trained me I chose a different path to follow. Why do you ask?”
“We are all armed and trained the same. Some are better, some are worse but training style same. Weapons are the same.” He paused and thought putting his question into order. “What is it like being different?”
“What is it like being the same?”
“There is confidence in your training and in your companions,” He answered promptly. “You know that your methods are tried and true. You know you can depend on those around you.”
“Ah,” Shandra raised her hand and Myntimur paused.
“That is something we both share. Tuathe De and the Warrior Folk can both depend on those around them. My father is a master of his chosen weapons as am I. My brother is a war healer and battle mage and my mother a paladin. We all use different weapons and tactics but we can all depend on the other to do his job and cover your companions' back.”
“This I understand,” Myntimur declared. “A man can concentrate on his own task when he knows that he need not worry about those of others.”
“Are all Orcs warriors?”
“No!” Myntimur was adamant. “No women are warriors. Their job is to bear the next generation of soldiers. Those men who do not have the -” he paused seeking the right words. “Those that do not have the right, ability and aggression. They become workers. Slaves that perform according to their ability. They are not allowed to take a mate or even be with a female except on a special occasion when the sterile ones or captives of war are sent as a gift.”
Shandra repressed a shudder.
“Each Tuathe De is free to choose his own life.” Shandra replied, “Most men and many women choose to learn the ways of war. We also learn from childhood to raise our own food; to gather, to hunt and fish.
“Our women learn the tasks of combing the sheep and making our cloth. We also do most of the cooking and raising the children. Men work in metal, leather, and wood. It is a good life full of music, dance, stories and when we choose honorable combat.”
“You have traveled much,” Myntimur stated.
“Yes nearly as much as my parents. Although as a shadow-warden my father has traveled to places no other human foot has trod.” Shandra's eyes were scanning the grasslands seeking any sign of any change. Although they were walking towards a light she saw no signs they were getting closer.
Don was ahead scouting the way. He was already in the shadow-lands so he did not 'pop' into or out of view. He was still hard to keep track of. He was elusive as a ghost through the grass.
Myntimur's apelike nostrils widened and his eyes did as well. It was one of those moments when a person saw with perfect clarity and Shandra was surprised to notice that Myntimur's eyes had lost the milky drowned looked and looked like normal dark brown human eyes.
At the same instant Shandra felt a tingle at the base of her neck as the hair at the nape of her neck stood up on its own. Don spun on his heel and dropped to one knee drawing his dragon-horn bow back to his ear seeking a target for his red-fletched arrow.
Up from the grass out of cleverly concealed holes in the ground came men. Men so thin and covered in sores and mud that Shandra was not sure that they were human. Their teeth were certainly filed as they rose up shrieking to the attack. Their weapons were clubs made of human femurs with splinters of bone lodged in cracks.
Shandra stepped to the first spider-hole and her  Dair Maegair swept twice severing the first attacker from his collarbone to his opposite hip the body dropping two pieces. Her weapon continued through and out slicing the next enemy's thigh to the bone. The last thing he saw was Myntimur's short spear stabbing down straight into his heart.
Don dropped the closest to him with an arrow through the throat and out the spine. In one smooth motion he slid his bow into its case and drew his battle ax and buckler from his belt.
The battle ax was made from golden-steel and appeared light and graceful in his hand. He drove into the middle of the spider-holes in a whirlwind of gold and red as blood arced away from his blade and the spikes on the top and back of his ax. A head poked out of a spider-hole and he stove in the face with a stamping heel.
Shandra and Myntimur had accounted for a handful more each and the rest threw down their weapons and began running through the tall grass. Myntimur was still on his guard and between the three of them they found a pair of savage men still hiding.
When Myntimur flipped back the woven grass cover of the spider-hole the two inside flinched down and covered their faces. Shandra motioned them out with her bloodied glaive.
The men were starvelings nothing but stark bones standing out against ashy skin. Their hair was rank and gray with malnutrition and stress. What flesh was left on their bones was stringy and thin. It looked to Shandra like dried beef rather than human muscle. And they stank. They stank like nothing Shandra had ever smelled or imagined in all her travels. The gut wrenching smell was enough to make her want to kill them just so she could end their encounter and move safely away from the gray skinned men.
Her father approached carefully with an arrow nocked scanning the rest of the area for more hiding places. She saw the fever-bright look in their eyes and the drool start in their mouths and Shandra blurted out, “You eat each other most of the time.”
The men glanced at each other with just a shadow of something maybe shame or regret passing across their faces.
“There's nothing else here,” one of them said almost to himself. “Nothing at all but the grass.”
“We eat that,” the other said. “A lot of that but it doesn't do more than fill you for a bit before it gives you a belly ache and the runs.”
“So we have to eat, you know,” he paused, “the other flesh.”
“We're you sailors on a ship?” Don asked almost sympathetically.
“How did you know?” For the first time one of them showed interest in their captors as more than some source of food.
“The ship sank and you wound up here?”
“Yes!” one of the men replied eagerly, “Do you know the way home?”
“Yes,” Don replied, “I can send you where you belong or at least away from here. Anywhere is better than here right?”
“Only too right, Sir,” one of them replied glad to hear the voice of authority.
Don nodded to his daughter and in a smooth and effortless motion drove an arrow into one of the men's eyes. Before the other realized what happened Shandra swept her sword in a single motion and the other man's head bounced twice in the grass.
“Why did you kill them?” Myntimur asked. He would have done the same but considered his human companions different.
“I didn't. They were already dead. They just didn't know it. Because of that they were torturing themselves here and couldn't leave. I've seen it before,” Don's eyes were haunted.
“It's rare you see a whole crew but it happens.”
“This is a bad spot. I wish I could have guided them out but their spot is not yours and they're past any help I could give them here.”
“I was not sure. Not really sure you could find my path,” Myntimur said. “But you do know where you are going and I am going.”
“Yes and I will tell you a secret shadow-walkers do not usually share. There is not hunger or thirst here except what is in your mind. That crew was too bound up with their lust for food and drink in their mind and souls. They would never had heard my words.”
“You will feel hunger and thirst. And fatigue and weariness of the mind and spirit but none of those really exist here. They are all things we create here. Be aware of it and you can master it. We do not tell others because most men lie to themselves and say, 'I can master my hunger' or 'thirst means nothing to me' but they find themselves lost here and go slowly mad. It is better not to venture here than to come here unprepared.”
“Anything a man can master, I can master,” Myntimur declared.
“You or your ancestors were men,” Shandra reminded him. “What is still good and strong in your spirit is still that. That is why some orcs or half orcs come to the Church and change their ways.”
“That is truth as well?” Myntimur demanded.
“Truth,” Don nodded.
“Orcneas or their orc worshippers take human children and warp them into orcs. Once an orc they will grow up like an orc but more than one has been healed by a miracle. Nothing bad done to you can twist you forever. You can master it and be whatever you choose. That's what makes an orc different than an orcneas. An orcneas is a demon a lesser demon but still a demon. They are damned to hell. An orc no matter how black his sins is still a man.”

Myntimur gave a half cough, turned and began walking in the direction they had been traveling. Shandra and her father gave him time to think things through himself. Unknown to him small changes were coming over him here in the shadow-lands. His eyes were clearing and his ears were less pointed. The sickly pallor of a drowned corpse was leaving his skin. Myntimur did not know it but he was becoming a man.

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