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By Hans-Jrg Knabel

Battle Axe and Shield

Silence, Morra!
Elgans flagon dropped to the table with a splash. His mouth fell agape, his gaze fixed on something outside. Murdra shot a glance at the window and gasped. Ill be damned, she thought. An orc was standing in the courtyard. Not the kind of orc Murdra knew; not a stooped creature in tattered furs with the skittish eyes of a wild beast, but a proud warrior, standing tall, with a bushy beard underlining the sharp features of his face. As he stepped forward, Murdra could make out heavy leather armor, a round shield and a massive battle axe on his back. Ill be damned, Murdra thought again approaching the window. The orc wasnt alone. The courtyard was teeming with more of his kind.
Youre not welcome ere! Murdra heard Belgor shout. He and a few woodcutters were barring the entrance to the tap room. A deep, growling sound filled the air. The orcs were laughing.
Whos going to stop us, One-Leg? sneered the orc Murdra first saw.
Belgor glanced at the woodcutters by his side. They werent looking very confident. Youre not welcome ere! Belgor repeated stubbornly, but he was sounding a little less self-assured this time. Murdra could see his peg-leg shaking from where she stood.
Whats going on out there? Rauter asked from the back of the tap room. What luck, Murdra thought, turning in Rauters direction. He wasnt the only one sitting at the table. Nearly the entire Stewark chapter of the fighters guild had gathered in the Maiden for their annual assembly. Twenty armed men.

There are orcs in the courtyard! Murdra called out to Rauter and the fighters. Lots of em!
Runaway slaves or Silverlake orcs? Rauter asked, keeping his cool.
Murdra shook her head. Neither! she said. Warriors in heavy armor, with shields and axes!
Whoa! Rauter exclaimed. Where did they come from? The fighters leapt to their feet, grabbing their swords and axes and rushed to the door. Murdra turned back towards the window. The orcs were inexorably advancing towards the entrance, driving Belgor and the woodcutters back with each step. The tap room door burst open with a bang, and the guild fighters poured out, elbowing their way past Belgor and his comrades.
The orcs hesitated.
Theres nothing for you here, Rauter shouted, his sword raised. Get lost!
Growling and muttering amongst themselves, his adversaries drew their weapons. Did you hear that? one of them bellowed. The morra wants to bleed! The orcs laughed. Then let him bleed! thundered another, rapping his axe against his shield. His kin followed suit. A loud voice cut through the noise. Enough!

There was a man standing behind the orcs; Murdra hadnt noticed him before. His skin was dark, nearly black, his muscular body clad in leather and iron. His battleaxe was still on his back. A dark warrior! it flickered through Murdras mind. We cant afford any more casualties, the dark warrior proclaimed, pushing two orcs aside. Not now!
We fight when we want to! yelled the largest orc, displaying his two-handed axe and a pair of massive tusks. You dont give the orders here!
Not orders, Erhag, the warrior barked, but advice! Use your head! We cant flee for ever sooner or later, well have to fight! When that time comes, we will need each and every one of your warriors!
Who says we are fleeing? Erhag growled, his voice deep and menacing. An orc never flees!
Call it any way you like, it wont change the facts! the dark warrior retorted. We fled Myrtana by ship and headed for the north of Varant. And then? What did we do as Rhobar set his sights to the south? Did we fight? No! We fled again to Ben Sala, to Mora Sul we have been fleeing for months nay, years!
Silence, Morra! Erhag yelled. His face was a mask of fury.
The guild fighters looked at each other, bemused, mirroring the orcs. Murdra saw Rauter give his comrades a sign. It looked like he wanted to see how things were going to play out. Dont be a fool, Erhag! the dark warrior continued. You know as well as I that Rhobar only sent a fraction of his troops to lay siege to Mora Sul. The rest are on their way here. Your own scouts saw it. How long do we have? A few weeks? Days? Hell come I say we have to face the king of Myrtana before he conquers the last free island left, and we simply cant afford any more casualties! Weve already lost enough warriors in senseless feuds against lousy peasants.

Thorus is right, another orc cut in. He didnt look like a warrior. He wasnt carrying an axe, but a large gnarled staff.
Youve always been licking the Morras boots, Grosh! Erhag thundered, baring his tusks.
Are you challenging me? Grosh growled. He was standing in the middle of the courtyard under the harsh midday sun, but everything around him seemed to grow dark. Erhag glared at him, but there was a hint of fear in his eyes. A long, deep growl escaped from his throat and died. Erhag spat on the floor. What advice does the morra have to give this time?
Argaan is famous for its fortresses. There is only jungle to be found on the islands further to the south. I say we stay on Argaan and join the warlords here to face Rhobar and his paladins! Thorus replied.
An alliance with morras? Never! Erhag let his eyes wander over the orcs and shouted: I say, we head for the mountains and fight like orcs free, and with honor! Some orcs started to rap their axe-heads against their shields, but most looked at Thorus and Grosh expectantly.

You want to leave? Thorus said, contempt in his voice. Then leave and die, hunted down like a dog. I will stand and fight with an army at my back!

For an instant, a chilling silence fell over the Cleaved Maiden.
Grosh thumped his staff on the ground. I stand with Thorus.
This settled it. Axes rapped against shields. Erhag pushed a smaller orc aside and strode to the gate. I am heading for the mountains! he yelled. Follow me, or stay and lick the morras boots!
A murmur went through the orcs. A few made a few hesitant steps in Erhags direction, but the darkness around Grosh grew. Let them go to their deaths, Thorus said. Grosh gave him a bleary look. The shadows vanished. Go, he thundered.
Five orcs left the courtyard, following Erhag into the wilderness. Thorus watched them leave for a while, then stepped up to Rauter.
Who is the strongest warlord on this island? he demanded.
That would be Ethorn VI, the king of Argaan, stranger, Rauter answered, sword still in hand.
Where can I find him?
On the east coast, Rauter said. In Setarrif, the home of his forefathers. You can follow the coastal road to the south. Or head north, through Thorniara.

The dark warrior though for a moment, and nodded. Put up your axes, he barked to the orcs. We move! He spun on his heel and headed for the gate, the orcs in tow. Murdra watched them leave and, even after they were out of sight, her gaze remained fixed on the cloud of dust their heavy boots sent billowing up into the air as they marched down the coastal road. Then she heard Elgans spoon scrape in his bowl. I could use another bowl of soup, Elgan said. And a cup of mead! Murdra nodded distractedly. The guild fighters filed back into the tap room, calling for mead. Murdra trudged into the kitchen. Only then did she realize her legs were shaking. In the kitchen, Murdra took a deep breath. The shaking subsided. She grabbed a few cups from the shelf and put them on the table. That was when she heard Belgors peg leg thump on the kitchen floor. His strong, warm hand came to rest on her bottom. Murdra turned around and sighed. Like I always say: youre a ero, she purred.

Belgor smiled.

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