In Bagrash Runtchucka’s mob you didn’t have to be fast – just faster than the other git.
The snaggle-toothed goblin they called Gutslitta didn’t look like he could stand upright in the howling wind coming down off the mountains around Black Crag, much less run. But run the goblin did, his flat feet flapping on the stone goat-path and his long ears bent back against his knobby green head as he raced up the steep slope past Runtchucka’s lumbering boyz. Beady-eyed, yellow-tusked heads turned at the sound of the goblin’s approach, and clawed hands the size of platters swung idly at Gutslitta as he dashed by, but the runt ducked and dodged his way past each crushing blow. His breath misted in the frosty air, wheezing past his jagged fangs like a broken whistle.
“Stunties!” he muttered as he ran. “Smell ‘em, I do! Down in the cracks and the hollows! Leather an’ iron and black powder! Stunties are comin’!”
The orcs paid Gutslitta no mind. There were more goblins than orcs in Runtchucka’s mob these days, and they swarmed around the boyz heels like rats; whispering and hissing, plotting and scheming, looking for a shiny to steel or an eye to stick a knife in. Not that there was much to loot off Runtchucka’s boyz these days. It had been a long, long time – weeks, maybe even a whole month – since Bagrash had gone looking for a proper fight. The mob didn’t have a fresh skull, a shiny piece of tin or a decent patch of dried gore between them, but the Black Orc boss didn’t seem to notice, or care.
All that mattered to Bagrash these days was revenge. And so, day in and day out, he’d lumber out of his lair in the caves at the foot of the mountains and drag his boyz up the goat-paths to the highest peak they could reach, hunting for wyverns. Bagrash was “gonna get dat poisonwing wot stuck -‘im”, no matter how long it took, and his boyz followed his lead. It was either that or have their heads driven between their shoulders like tent-pegs.
They had been working their way up the stony crag all morning, pausing only to push fallen boulders out of the way or squabble over the marching order, which took place every few minutes or so. Now, with the sun starting to slip toward the peaks to the west, the mob had finally reached Bagrash’s favorite hunting spot. Here the goat-path ran beneath a jutting overhang of granite as heavy and imposing as an orcish brow, creating a shadowy shelf that was littered with piles of dusty stones. To the left, the path dropped off into a steep-sided gully; beyond rose the grim, imposing bulk of the mountain that the humans called Wyvern’s Reach. The mountain’s snowy peak looked close enough to touch in the crystal-clear air, its sheer sides pocked with the narrow caves that the wyverns loved to lair in. Bagrash stood at the head of the path, massive fists resting on his hips, and glared hatefully at the cave openings, his breath rising past his tusks in a noxious gray steam.
Gutslitta raced right for the boss, his ragged human-skin jerkin flapping in the wind. A swarm of Gutslitta’s treacherous kin were already circling warily about the black orc, careful to stay out of the boss’s easy reach. His boyz at the top of the goat-path were doing the same, clutching their heavy iron choppas and growling at the irritating little runts milling about their feet.
“Stunties!” Gutslitta wheezed, a little louder this time. The other goblins spun on their heels and snarled at him, their tiny eyes glinting with pent-up violence. One of them, a stringy little git named Buggin, pulled a rusty little saw-toothed knife from his belt and went to stab Ratslitta in the face, just on general principle. But the lean, swift Ratslitta saw the blow coming and rolled beneath Buggin’s clumsy thrust, raking his claws across the stringy goblin’s leg as he went past. Buggin yowled, but by the time he’d turned about Ratslitta was already six feet away and bounding upright before the brooding orc boss.
“Leather and smoke!” the goblin screeched. He bared his blackened teeth in a vicious grin. “Iron and black powder! Stunties, close enough to smell! Close enough to – nnglrk!”
Ratslitta’s moment of triumph was smothered by Bagrash’s scarred left hand as the orc boss grabbed the goblin by the head and hurled him at Wyvern’s Reach with a defiant roar.
“Come out, ya flyin’ snakes!” the black orc thundered. “Bagrash is back! Come an’ get it!”
Ratslitta flew in a shrieking arc out into the cobalt-blue sky, falling short of Wyvern’s Reach by just shy of a quarter-mile. From the shadows beneath the rocky overhang, Ghurlak watched the goblin disappear into the swirling mists.
Sometimes, the young orc mused, it didn’t pay to be the faster git.
The lengthy observation earned Ghurlak a stabbing pain just behind the left knee. He snarled, lashing out with the rock in his left fist, and barely missed the cackling goblin that had stabbed him. The little greenskin scuttled away, licking the purple-red blood from the tip of his knife. Ghurlak felt the anger start to boil up from his chest, envisioning the scampering little wretch smeared into a sticky paste beneath his fist, but at the last moment he bit his warty lip and tamped the rage down yet again. The goblin wanted Ghurlak to try and chase him down, so he could lead the orc back down the path to where a score of his scrawny cousins waited. None of the mob had been eating well since Bagrash had gotten stung by the poisonwing, and the goblins were more starved than usual. Twice now, Ghurlak had woken down in the caves and discovered one of the little wretches sawing on his toes.
The goblins felt free to try and eat Ghurlak because he was the smallest and weakest of the orcs in Bagrash’s mob. At just six-and-a-half feet tall and weighing a little less than a warhorse, Ghurlak was a runt by orcish standards. He was also the youngest of Bagrash’s boyz, which meant that he’d not had the time or opportunity to get any good stuff. His best weapon was a length of knotted oak sapling that he clutched in his scarred right fist, and the closest thing he had to armor was a thick tunic of hairy, un-tanned ox-hide that hung down past his bowed knees. His tusks were short and barely curved, he still had both his eyes and there was scarcely a single notch carved into his pointed ears. When the other orcs noticed him at all it was to give him a good thumping, or to try and throw him off the nearest ledge, or to give him a good thumping and try to throw him off the nearest ledge. He’d survived so far by being just a little quicker, a little smarter or a little meaner than the others expected.
But Ghurlak wasn’t interested in survival. That was no way to live. He wanted to kill something, by Gork. He wanted to crack noggins and crush bones, split skin and splatter brains. But the other orcs were too big, and the goblins too hard to hit, and all he had anyway was a grubby stick that wasn’t much good for anything. All the blood he’d spilled so far had been his own, and he was about to burst at the seams like a goblin with a bad case of toadstool poisoning.
The goblin that had stabbed him scuttled out of sight, leaving Ghurlak fuming. He scratched absently at the stab wound in his leg, and suddenly realized what the late, unlamented Ratslitta had been screeching about.
Black Crag had been a battlefield for as long as Ghurlak could remember – which, honestly, wasn’t all that long. The mountains in the region had once belonged to the Dwarfs, until the orc Warlord, Dork gave them a good kicking and drove them out. But the stunties still wanted their mountains back, and kept sending war parties to try and drive the greenskins out – which was all well and good, as far as Ghurlak was concerned. Bagrash used to think so, too, until he’d run afoul of the poisonwing a while back.
The black orc turned ponderously about, the heavy iron plates of his armor flaring out around his enormous chest. Bagrash had legs as broad as tree trunks and arms thick enough to choke a boar. His waxy, dark-green skin was covered in scars and gouges from countless fights, and his wide belt of iron links was festooned with a garish assortment of grinning trophy skulls. A pair of massive choppas – little more than hunks of slightly curved, slightly sharpened iron – hung from a pair of looted meat hooks fastened to his rusting shoulder plates, and a crudely-forged, horned helmet covered his misshapen skull. Like his skin, Bagrash’s helmet was a mosaic of dents and rust-darkened scars – except for a single, fresh gouge that glittered brightly at the base of the helmet’s right eye-slit.
Runtchucka reached up and pulled the kettle-like helm from his head, revealing the baleful, swollen orb that bulged from his right eye-socket. The wyvern’s stinger had stabbed like a needle into Bagrash’s eye and pumped it full of searing venom, which was now hard at work boiling the orc boss’s brain. Had Runtchucka managed to kill the wyvern then, he’d have probably keeled over moments later, but instead the poisonwing had escaped, leaping skyward and leaving Bagrash howling impotently below. As far as the black orc was concerned, the fight was still on.
Bagrash glared at his boyz with one, beady eye and hefted the helmet in one hand. “Right, den!” he rumbled. “’oo wants ta wear da big hat?”
The boss’s boyz showed their enthusiasm for the idea by turning on each other with fists and blades, ready to throw the first hapless bugger they could into Bagrash’s clutches. The goblins scattered in all directions, chattering and cackling with glee at the melee. One of them capered into Ghurlak’s path and got stomped flat for his troubles, but the orc never noticed. Ratslitta’s words were burning in his brain with a virulence all their own.
“Stunties!” he shouted eagerly, his hand tightening on his oaken club. Unthinking, he stepped right up to Bagrash, his lips splitting in a hungry grin. “Boss! Dere’s stunties about!” The young orc was almost dizzy at this obvious gift from the gods. They didn’t have to go looking for a proper fight; one had come to them!
“’oo said anyfink about stunties, then?” Bagrash roared, so close to Ghurlak’s face that he could have reached down Runtchucka’s throat and had a bit of breakfast if he’d liked. Heat radiated from the black orc’s poison-filled eye like a banked coal. “I don’t give a snotling’s arse about stunties! I gots a poisonwing ta kill.”
Too late, Ghurlak realized that he’d come to Bagrash at a bad time. Before he could back out of arm’s reach the black orc smashed his fist into Ghurlak’s face, then grabbed the front of the young orc’s ox-hide tunic and dragged him close enough to cram the helmet onto his head.
Stinking, echoing darkness descended on Ghurlak. The helmet was ten sizes too big for him, and was on backwards to boot. He roared in anger and pain, flailing about blindly with his club, but Bagrash was already in motion, twisting smoothly at the hip and chucking the smaller orc into the air as though he weighed no more than a sack of millstones.
He didn’t fly nearly so far as Gutslitta. Ghurlak plunged into the narrow gully, his muscular arms wind-milling and his feet pumping, as though trying to run in midair. Dimly, he heard appreciative hoots and whistles from the boyz as they complimented Bagrash on his technique. The black orc wasn’t called Runtchucka for nothing, after all.
Ghurlak was still howling in thwarted rage when he hit the gully floor, sixty feet below. Fortunately, he managed to land on his head.
Ghurlak regained consciousness several seconds later. He blinked in the reeking darkness, gave a jaw-cracking yawn, and sat up. The oversized helmet shifted on his head, clanging hollowly against the back of his skull, and the young orc suddenly remembered where he was.
Shouting furiously, Ghurlak leapt blindly to his feet and pawed at the kettle-like helmet, trying to get it turned around so he could see. He managed it at last, his fists pressed against the pitted iron so he could tilt it enough to peer out one of the irregularly-shaped eye holes. The smell at the front of the helmet was even worse than the back.
He was standing roughly at the midpoint of the gully, facing down-slope. The narrow path ran before him for almost twenty yards before turning sharply to the right. Thick, yellow bones were scattered across the gully floor amid huge patches of dried, reddish-purple blood. Ghurlak turned about, spying a half-dozen rotting orcish bodies that the scavengers hadn’t yet picked clean. All but two of them were partially crushed beneath huge boulders. The gully was full of stones, piled in the nooks and crannies of the crooked gully. Most were stained with gore.
It was at this very spot where the poisonwing had swooped down on Bagrash and foolishly tried to make a meal of him. Now the black orc cunningly hid in the shadows of the overhang high above with a big rock in either hand while Ghurlak wore his big hat and waited in the gully for the poisonwing to have another go. The idea was that, while the poisonwing was busily stabbing the orc with the big hat, Bagrash and the rest of the mob would break its wings with a veritable avalanche of stones. Then Bagrash and the boys could charge down into the gully and give the crippled monster a good kicking. In reality, all that Bagrash’s plan had managed to do so far was get a bunch of boyz stabbed to death or crushed by poorly-aimed boulders.
Ghurlak knew from experience that all the noise would get the poisonwings’ attention sooner or later. He still had his rock and his knotty stick, but that didn’t seem like much compared to a monster with a stinger the size of a short sword and claws big enough to carry off an ox. He moved haphazardly from one side of the gully to the other, looking among the mangled corpses for a proper weapon.
A boulder hit the gully wall and shattered with a thunderous crack. Bagrash’s booming voice echoed from beneath the overhang. “Get back out in the middle like proper bait!” he roared. “’ow are we gonna trick da poisonwing if he can’t see ya?”
Ghurlak glared up at the sound of Bagrash’s voice, but the gesture was lost in the confines of the helmet. A smaller rock struck the top of the helm with a clang, as if to emphasize the boss’s point. Snarling, the young orc stomped back out into the middle of the gully and waited, rotating the helmet on his shoulders so he could peer upwards at the sky.
The mountain wind whistled through the helmet’s crude eye-slits. Ghurlak listened for the beat of leathery wings. The mob fell grudgingly silent for a few moments, until a couple of boyz got tired of all the waiting and started to scuffle. The meaty smack of a wide palm echoed down from the overhang, and the sounds of struggle fell silent.
The seconds stretched by. Ghurlak started to grow bored. Then he heard a new sound: the distant rattle of metal, and guttural, rumbling voices, but this time it was coming from behind him.
Ghurlak spun, staring back down the gully. There was no one there, but he could clearly hear more sounds of movement echoing from around the corner. It was the stunties, by Gork, and they were coming his way!
The young orc forgot all about the poisonwings. His thick blood sang with the prospect of a proper fight at long last. He glanced upwards, rotating the helmet to match. “Oi!” he hissed. “The stunties is comin’!”
“Shut up or I’ll hit ya wiv anuvver rock! See if I will!” Bagrash snarled.
The sounds of movement were growing louder now. It sounded to Ghurlak like an entire war band, their mail shirts rustling as they marched. He pointed down-slope with his club.
“But the stunties –” he began.
Another rock, much larger than the others, whistled through the air above Ghurlak’s head. He ducked at the last possible moment, and the boulder crashed into the gully wall beside him. It rebounded, skittering down the gully and bouncing around the corner. Out of sight, a deep-throated voice let out a startled shout.
Moments later a veritable tide of short, stout armored bodies came roaring around the corner towards Ghurlak. The dwarfs carried shields of burnished steel and wore heavy scale hauberks that hung down to their feet. Steel spangenhelms, ornamented with gold and silver and decorated with horns or upswept wings, covered the tops of their heads and the upper half of their faces. Their grey beards were forked or braided, and wound with golden wire. Eyes like polished gemstones glittered coldly as they caught sight of Ghurlak.
The dwarfs raised gleaming axes or fearsome war hammers and gave an exultant shout as they caught sight of their hated enemy. As one, they bore down on Ghurlak, each warrior racing to be the first one to spill the young orc’s blood.
Ghurlak let the oversized helmet droop onto his collarbones and raised his knotty stick. Roaring his thanks to Gork and Mork, he charged straight at the oncoming dwarfs.
2009 Feb 26 11:03 GMT