The Life We Choose

Content Advisory: Violence

I test the edge of my sword on my thumb. It’s plenty sharp, but I still run my whetstone along its edge. With each motion of the stone moving along the blade, I feel the gravity of this battle more firmly. This is the battle that will make or break the war. The Emperor has been outplayed, and we’re scrambling to gain the upper hand again. The rebels will capitalize on their current advantage, but that means they’re playing all their cards now. Which means it’s time for us to do the same, and if we can outplay them then the war will still be won.

I sheathe my sword with a resounding click in its scabbard and pick up my dark iron helm. I can barely make out my reflection in the rusty metal. Green-grey skin, a strong jaw and broken nose, and small, dark eyes. I put my helm on my head, feeling its weight press down on me. I pause for a moment, as I always do when I don my armor. I close my eyes to remind myself why I fight.

I’m an orc. Yes, orcs are warmongers by nature. And yes, I enjoy bloodshed, more than I care to admit. But that doesn’t mean that I have to be a harbinger of death and destruction everywhere I go. I know that there is darkness in me. And knowing this, I can take it as such. I don’t want to give bloodlust a chance to take control. I raise my chin toward the sky and pray. I pray to Traknag, and I pray to Leja. Grant me strength. Grant me power and resolve. Grant me wisdom and discernment. Grant me peace, that I do not become consumed in my bloodlust.

I open my eyes. It’s time to fight.

I walk up to a table with the battle maps spread upon it.

“Colonel Tamarg, reporting for duty,” I say, beating my gauntleted fist against my breastplate as I take my place alongside five other colonels.

Lord Zerix nods to my salute. It never ceases to impress me how powerful the king of the orcs is. He stands six inches above me, with a thick scar running diagonally down his face, across the bridge of his nose. He’s a powerhouse of muscle, determination, and skill. And yet he submits to Dravac, the Emperor himself. The fact that such a powerful orc takes orders from a human only proves how powerful Dravac must be. I’ve never met Dravac in person, and yet through Zerix I know that it’s an honor to work under him. He is the one that will ultimately bring stability to such a troubled world.

“Where are we positioned?” I ask.

“Here.” Zerix points to a spot on the map. “It’s one of the three mountainsides sloping down into the central valley,” Zerix says to me and the other colonels. “The fortresses of Terbinoth are built all along the sides of all the slopes, making it easy to defend. We’re on the north slope, which means we’ll be on the left of the rebel armies as they come up the valley.”

Of course, we could probably stop the rebels before they even reach this valley. At the base of the valley, etched into the side of a cliff, is Stronturnoth. It is a legendary fortress; in days past, fifty men held off an entire legion. It’s the most defensible location in all Yettrioth.

I mention this to Zerix, but he shakes his head.

“That karfing kid Peter thought of that already. We’ve had to change our plans,” Zerix says.

I’ve never met Peter, but I know of him. Everyone knows of him. He’s a legend, even if he’s only sixteen years old. He was put in charge of the rebel armies. His tactical brilliance is the only reason we haven’t been able to crush them. His strategies have constantly confounded our own tacticians. And he’s physically just as impressive. He fought Lord Zerix himself and lived to tell the tale, a fact that Zerix hates with a burning passion. That alone is enough for fame, and for grudging respect if not admiration.

“Do we know anything about their plan of attack?” one of the other colonels asks.

Zerix grins. “Yes. Thanks to some inside info, for once we know exactly what they’re planning.” He gestures to the map as he speaks. “The main rebel force will be coming up the valley, to draw our own forces out. Then some smaller units will make their way into the fortresses along either side of the mountain and trap our own forces outside the walls.”

“That’s their plan? That’s the best Peter could come up with?” I ask.

Zerix holds up his hand. “Remember, they have control of Astine. Which means they have the airships. The infiltrating forces will be raining down on us from the sky.”

I nod. That’s more like it. It would have been almost too easy without that.

“So what do we do?” another colonel says.

“We stay in our section,” Zerix says simply. “We slaughter the soldiers as they descend to the castle walls.”

“Straightforward enough,” I say. Things certainly could be worse. That’s a comparatively safe position, with relatively little direct fighting.

Zerix nods, tight-lipped. I know he wants a more central job. A position with more brutality. He glances at me and knows I can read his thoughts. “Get your men” is all that he says.

 

Now two hours have passed. I’m standing on the wall of a tower, overlooking the gigantic field below me. I can see the Imperial flags decorating the walls of the fortress, and I feel the presence of my men spread along the walls on either side of me. I look out over the hills far to the southwest, still covered in a morning haze. And I know that somewhere out there, my dearest friend is preparing to fight for the rebels. I wonder what’s going through his head right now. As I wait on the wall, fragmented memories slowly resurface, memories I haven’t relived in a very long time.

 

*          *          *

 

“Nice one!” I grunted as Trussk’s training sword smacked me in the ribs. I danced backwards to avoid his next swing. He lunged forward, and I stepped to the side, catching him off-balance and scoring a hit on his thigh. He grunted and turned back to me, grinning.

“Two for two,” he said. “Next hit wins.”

I spun toward him, but he parried and forced his sword closer to me. I dodged to one side, and the wooden training sword barely missed me. I swung my sword up, but he moved in close, catching the hilt of my sword with his elbow and knocking it away. He swung his at the same time, but I ducked backwards under the blow. I turned the motion into an attack, sweeping his legs out from under him. He crashed to the ground, and I grabbed my sword. He started to scramble up, but he wasn’t fast enough to dodge my thrust.

“Good job,” he grunted, panting and sweating as he clasped my hand.

“You too, Trussk!”

 

We met when we were six years old. We were assigned as training partners, but we became more than that. We became best friends. Brothers. And we were always there for each other, rejoicing in victories, lamenting in defeats.

 

Trussk stared down into his mug of ale. “I can’t believe she said no,” he bemoaned.

I nodded, an awkward lump in my throat. I could feel his pain—I could taste it—and that cut me more deeply than any physical attack ever could.

“I’m sorry, man.”

Trussk nodded. “Leran was…everything I could have asked for.” His voice cracked.

I clenched and unclenched my fist. “If she said no to you, if she can’t see you for who you are, she’s not worth it.”

 

We were seventeen years old at the time, full adults in the eyes of orcs. As we grew older, we still talked of women, but our conversation topics broadened.

 

“Why aren’t you coming on the raid tomorrow?”

Trussk shook his head. “It doesn’t feel right,” he said at length, glowering into the distance.

I stared at him. “What?”

He looked up at me from the rock he was sitting on. He was taller than me, but for once he was looking up to make eye contact. “Tamarg, I can’t justify raiding for the sake of raiding. If we need food, then fine. If we need supplies, fine. But we don’t.”

“It’s to show our strength,” I said.

Trussk nodded. “I know. But I don’t think that’s right. Zerix may feel like he has to prove his military might.” Trussk hesitated. “I think you’re truly powerful when you have the confidence not to feel like you have to prove yourself.”

“Respect can only be earned through deed,” I said curtly.

“The act of not fighting will earn more respect than a raid. A raid only results in fear, which results in mistrust. Which results in further conflict.”

I shook my head and tried to appeal to his logical mind. “Look at the animal kingdom. Any animal that’s stronger earns more respect. You don’t earn respect through inability to act decisively.”

“I don’t want to live in a world where we’re nothing more than glorified animals,” Trussk said at length. “I won’t allow myself to believe that’s all there is to it.”

“Well, you can stick to your brooding if you want,” I said, unable to hide the frustration in my voice. “But I believe in strength. Zerix is the strongest leader among us. He will bring us glory. So I will serve him.”

 

Yes, we had our differences. But that didn’t prevent us from maintaining our friendship. We were still there for each other during times of hardship and times of jubilation. On one of the happiest days of my life, Kala agreed to marry me. I asked Trussk to be my witness. He was elated to complete the ceremony with me, validating that Kala and I were legally wed.

 

Eventually, the Lord Arakal died, leaving no heir to the throne of the orcs. Trussk tried to lay claim to the throne. He promised that he would make orcs far greater than they ever had been before. He spoke of leading us to nonmilitary victories that would strengthen our own kingdom and secure our prosperity. But the orcs wanted Zerix to lead—myself included. Zerix promised tangible results, not the vague ideology that Trussk attempted to proclaim. Trussk knew better than to challenge Zerix to a duel for the throne. Defeated, he vowed to leave our territory and live as an exile.

 

“I wish you’d reconsider.”

Trussk was overlooking the forest sprawling below us, starting at the base of the cliff we were standing on. The sun was rising, bathing the forest in a warm yellow-green glow.

“I can’t stay, Tamarg. You know that.”

I did. Zerix wouldn’t trust Trussk ever again. He had been labelled as a potential enemy, and Zerix was not known for mercy. It is for precisely that reason that I wanted him as our leader, yet I wished he would see Trussk as I did: a valuable friend who genuinely cared about our kind.

“I’ll miss you.” I cringed at how it sounded. I hated sounding sentimental.

“You too, brother.” He gripped my hand, staring into my eyes. A flicker of a nostalgic smile played across his face, and then he was gone.

 

And then three years later, in the distant reaches of Yettrioth, the war started. Zerix announced that we were sworn to the service of Emperor Dravac. Zerix said that the war would bring hardship, but that as a result, there would be greater stability and respect for us. I always believed that hardship produced character, and I trusted Zerix as a leader. I knew that if he said there would be hardship, then there would be. But I accepted that, for hardship would also bring growth and stability, and a better future for us all. I fought to bring this peace into reality. If the rebellion could be stopped, then we could genuinely improve the lives of the people that the rebels falsely swore to protect.

In one fateful battle, I waded through choking smoke in the forest. I was in the southeast, hundreds of miles from my home. I had just been promoted to Captain, and it was my squad’s job to establish a secure base at the top of the hill. We burst out of the flaming trees and into a rocky clearing. The rebel forces were waiting. And Trussk was with them.

 

“Attack!” I shouted to my troops. They rushed at the rebels, shaking their spears and swords and clubs.

I drew my sword and held it at my side as I walked toward Trussk. The clashing of steel rung around us as we stared at each other.

Trussk held his own broadsword loosely in one hand. In his left hand. There was no way he could score a hit on me like that. It was a nonverbal white flag, a call for a truce.

He faked a swing at me, which I blocked with ease. But I allowed him to drive me backwards, until we were obscured from our men by the smoke of the forest.

“Been a long time,” Trussk said, lowering his sword and wiping the sweat from his forehead.

“It has,” I responded. “You been taking care of yourself?”

He nodded. “You? How’s Kala?”

“We’re fine,” I assured him. “Got a kid on the way. You need to meet your godson when he’s born. Gonna name him after you.”

A rebel soldier burst into vision and charged. Trussk stepped aside, not stopping me, not helping me. I raised my sword and made quick work of the man. I turned back to my friend.

Silence fell between us as he stared at the body of the man. He should have stopped me; we both know that. But we both needed to talk, and he was willing to put his duties of command aside.

He smiled at length, sadly. “I’m glad to hear that you’re both doing well, Tamarg. Really, I’m happy for you.”

“And you?” I asked him.

He shrugged. “I’m managing. Have some good friends.”

“Glad to hear it.” I never was good at articulating genuine care. Trussk knew that I meant it, though, even if my response sounded curtly cliché.

“I have to fight,” I told him at length, nodding to the mangled corpse at my feet.

“So do I,” he said. “But I won’t fight you.”

“Never.”

He lowered his sword. “I wish it didn’t have to come to this.”

I nodded. “I know. But it has. And I won’t ask you to do anything you don’t believe in.”

A pensive look came over his face. “That’s all any of us are doing, Tamarg. We’re fighting for what we believe in.”

The wind picked up, blowing the smoky curtain away from us.

I raised my sword and delivered a fake swing. He ducked under it and grabbed my hand in a quick embrace that to a bystander could have looked like an attack. “I’ll make my men withdraw. Don’t pursue us.”

“Deal.”

“I’ll miss you, Tamarg. Take care of yourself.” He fake-stumbled away from me. At his order, his forces retreated. I haven’t seen him since.

 

*          *          *

 

The battle has started. I can see the rebel armies advancing against our own in the field below, their flags raised and their bugles blaring. Dark smoke from the volcanic furnaces distorts the sunlight, painting a dark crimson glow over the battlefield. Our armies clash against each other. As I watch, I can’t make out the individual troops, but the imperials gradually beat back the rebels. I nod to myself. Things are going well.

With a rush of wind, Astenian airships burst through the ceiling of smoke. The great fins on the ships glow cherry-pink as they fly over us, bombarding the fortress walls with projectiles from catapults and ballistae.

“Find cover and return fire!” I shout to my men. I run along the wall, forcing myself not to run at a crouch. If a boulder from a catapult hits anywhere near me I’m done for. It doesn’t matter whether I’m ducking or not. I run toward the nearest tower. There’s a trebuchet atop it, and some of my men are already operating it. A smooth rock flies from the towering weapon and crashes into the hull of the ship above me. splintered fragments of wood rain down, but I know it’ll take more than that to stop the ship. The Astenians have built these ships for centuries, and they know how to keep them in the air.

With a groan, a trapdoor opens from the underside of the nearest ship. Hundreds of soldiers jump out into the air, descending toward us at a freefall. They have tall, rectangular shields that protect their entire bodies, and the shields have thin arrow slits in them. I squint, studying their armor. What is that on their backs?

In answer to my question, they pull something on their chests, and a flame races along their shoulder and around to their backs. The packs on their backs glow pinkish, and their fall begins to slow.

And they open fire. They shoot crossbow bolts through their shields, raining down at us. I dive for cover, barely managing to roll behind a heap of rubble as the bolts strike the ground around me. The rebels are descending from all around us, and before long they’ll be able to hit me from overhead. I glance around and see crossbow bolts pouring down from the sky, striking some of my allies that are scrambling for cover.

I grit my teeth. Peter is a genius, I’ll give him that. He thought this through with deadly precision. But I’m not going to let his brilliance intimidate me.

I jump up and dart for an enclosed building. The door is solid iron, so I aim for the window. I grab a rock and throw it, jumping after it. I crash through the glass window and roll up crouching. I only suffer a couple minor cuts, and I’ve avoided the crossbow fire.

Several of my troops follow me, a dozen men and orcs piling in to the room. Judging by the size and bareness of the room, I assume it used to be a warehouse. Ideal for avoiding the rebel fire.

“Colonel!” One of them asks when he sees the insignia on my chest. “What do we do?”

“They’ll get within firing range soon enough,” I say at a low growl. “And then they’ll touch down, and we will engage them hand to hand. Until then we wait it out.”

My men nod at my command and move around the room. Some of them crouch and check their weapons. Some of them stand near the windows with bows or crossbows at the ready. It’s odd how a battle makes you sentimental. I haven’t met most of these men before, yet I feel deeply connected to each individual. I know that they’re willing to give their lives for each other, and I am willing to give my life for any of them.

I stare out the window at the rebels descending on us. In a battle, minutes and hours blend together. It’s a feeling I’ve experienced countless times, but it’s uncomfortable all the same. I stare up at them, watching for what feels like an eternity but probably is no more than thirty seconds.

“Ready…Fire now!”

My men unleash an uncoordinated barrage of arrows.

“Focus your fire!” I command. I point to the sky at a group of three rebels. “Take them!” The troops do as I ordered, and arrows whistle toward the rebel soldiers. One of them twitches and drops his shield.

“They’re on the ground now,” one of the men says, pointing to a squad of rebels that have dropped their body shields in favor of smaller round ones and swords.

“Then it’s time we meet them.”

I rush out of the warehouse, shouting a battle cry in the orc tongue. My men run after me, raising their weapons. We crash into the rebel unit, the clatter of steel echoing in the fortress walls.

I slash right and left, losing all sense of time in the clamor of war. We carve through the rebels and press toward a larger force, leaving dead and dying corpses behind us. I drink in the scent of blood in the air.

“Move forward!” I shout to my men in a guttural voice. “Find the rest of the rebels!”

“Tamarg!”

I whirl at the sound of my name. Zerix is sitting astride Nirmorg, his wolf mount.

“Lord Zerix.”

“With me!” he orders.

I nod sharply and fall in step behind him. Three other colonels are with him.

“Consider yourself my new honor guard,” Zerix says as we walk before and behind him and his wolf.

Pride surges in my chest. This is the biggest honor I’ve ever been given, even if it’s a split-second decision in the heat of a battle. And yet I’m worried of the implications. How did Zerix lose his original honor guard? They wouldn’t allow themselves to get separated from him. They must have fallen to the enemy.

And I’m not going to take my duty lightly. I’ll fight for what I believe in. I’ll fight to protect Zerix, and to win this war. And if I need to die to do so, then so be it.

And yet—it’s been three months since I’ve seen my wife, and my son Thrusk. I have to see them again.

But I’m going to give it my all. Whatever is required of me, I am willing to do it. I will fight and I will kill at Zerix’s command.

“Where are we going?” one of the other colonels asks.

“To the east slope,” Zerix says.

The east slope. That’s where Dravac himself was positioned. Does he need reinforcements? I tighten my grip on my sword, mentally tightening my own resolve.

Through the dusty haze of the debris, I see the larger force starting toward us. Twenty or so rebels advance through the walkways. A quick glance back shows me that a few more men have joined my own ranks, but we’re still outnumbered.

I raise my sword and shout a war cry again as we charge at each other from opposite sides of a rubble-filled plaza.

And there he is. Trussk rushes toward me from the other side of the plaza. We lock eyes, and for a fraction of a second I know we’re thinking the same thing. We’re trapped. Zerix is watching, and he knows of our history. He will expect me to take Trussk. I know Trussk well, and that gives me an advantage in a fight against him. I have to fight to prove my loyalty to Zerix, and Trussk knows it.

I remember Trussk’s parting words. That’s all any of us are doing. We’re fighting for what we believe in.

And neither of us would ask the other to do anything less.

Our swords meet midair. It was an actual attack. Neither of us hold back as we swing again and again, each trying to outdo the other. But we both know each other. I know all of his moves, and he knows all of mine.

Trussk’s iron sword smacks me in the ribs. My armor is the only thing that keeps me from sustaining a crippling wound. As it is, stars dance in front of my eyes for a moment. I dance backwards to avoid his next swing.

“I’m sorry,” he says.

“So am I.”

He lunges forward, and I step to the side, catching him off-balance and scoring a hit on his thigh. He grunts and turned back to me, grimacing. The blood on his leg awakens something inside me. A growl escapes from the back of my throat.

I spin toward my opponent, but he parries and forces his sword closer to me. I dodge to one side, and the iron broadsword barely misses me. I swing my sword up, but he moves in close, catching the hilt of my sword with his elbow and knocking it away. He swings his at the same time, but I duck backwards under the blow. I turn the motion into an attack, sweeping his legs out from under him. He crashes to the ground, and I grab my sword. I will win this fight.

My enemy starts to scramble up, but he isn’t fast enough to dodge my thrust. My sword pierces his armor.

I blink. I just stabbed my best friend. I feel like I’ve been physically punched. I feel dizzy. I feel sick. How could I have let myself be consumed to the point I would be willing to kill my own brother?

I pull my sword out. I hit his lower torso. Possibly not a fatal wound, but certainly a debilitating one. I look around at the battle around me. The rebels and imperials are locked in combat, but my own forces have an upper hand.

I grab Trussk by the throat and slam him on his back, getting down on one knee. The move is violent, but I’m sure not to hit harder than I have to.

“I wish it hadn’t come to this.”

“I don’t—blame you,” Trussk gasps. “You’re doing—what you believe.”

“I won’t kill you.”

Trussk nods. “Lead your men.”

I start to stand, but he grabs my hand. He doesn’t say anything else. He just squeezes my hand, conveying more emotion in that gesture than he possibly could have through any words.

I grasp his hand for just a fraction of a second. Zerix is watching; I can feel his eyes on the back of my neck. I pull a dagger and raise it high.

“Trust me,” I whisper. I bring the dagger down, twisting it at the last second so the blade skids along his armor instead of into his flesh.

Then he drops to the ground, playing dead.

I stand over him for a second before I throw myself back into the battle, hacking and slashing right and left as I help the imperial soldiers rid the plaza of the rebels. I move in autopilot, my body taking control of itself while my mind is still reeling. How could I have gone so far?

We break into a run to keep up with Zerix’s trotting mount, and we rush along the network of walls and bridges.

Rebel soldiers try to stop us, but none can stand before us and Zerix. We finally come to the bridge that spans the wide gorge between the two hillsides. The dark smoke ceiling has left little light, almost as if the sun never rose to begin with. The ravine’s rocky base is dark grey below us.

The stone bridge is about ten feet wide, and it arches slightly as it spans the gorge. A fight clearly just occurred on the bridge; dead imperial bodies scatter the first few yards.

But now, there’s only one figure left standing, facing us from the other side of the bridge. He’s tall for a human, about my height. He’s wearing a sleeveless leather-and-steel breastplate and matching gauntlets and trousers. He isn’t wearing a helmet, and his shaggy dirty-blonde hair is plastered to his sweaty forehead.

But his most telling features are the deep scars on his surprisingly well-muscled right arm. Those scars were given to him by Zerix when they first fought in the battle of Yettria. I know him immediately.

Peter.

The other colonels don’t hesitate. Shouting our battle cries in orcish, they rush at him. I grit my teeth and charge to catch up. Peter takes a deep breath and draws his two longswords, twirling one in each hand, deadly and gracefully calm. We rush across the bridge at him, and he slowly walks forward to meet us.

As the first two colonels reach him, he spins, slashing his steel faster than I would have thought possible. After less than three seconds they’re both dead, leaving only me and one other colonel.

And now he rushes us. I raise my sword to block his first blow, but he’s stronger than I could have anticipated. He bats my sword aside and spins, gouging through the other orc’s chest. He turns to me in a fluid motion and completely knocks the sword from my hand.

As he brings his other sword around in a spiraling arc, I know that I will not be able to dodge. I close my eyes and see my son’s face as I feel the steel piercing my neck.

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