The Road We Walk

Content Advisory: Violence

I stare down at my sword. I made sure it was sharpened last night, and I trust that it will serve its purpose in the battle. I hate battle, but even I understand the gravity of this situation. This is the battle that will make or break the war. The Emperor has been backed into a corner, and we’re scrambling to maintain our upper hand. We will capitalize on our current advantage, but that means we’re playing all their cards now. Which means they’ll be playing all their cards too. We just have to outplay them, and the war will 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 slightly rusty metal. Grey-brown skin, a strong but narrow jawline, a thick 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 and pray for peace in the battle, for peace of soldiers on my side and on the enemy’s side. I pray to Leja and to Traknag. I pray that we all act out of a sense of duty; that we all do as we feel we must. I pray that I can have the resolve to do whatever it takes to defend those that I love; that I can act decisively, even if it is a decision that I do not like or want to make.

I open my eyes. It’s time to fight.

I walk into the commanders’ tent. It’s spacious, with several rooms; the central room has a long table with various maps and documents spread out on it. Peter stands at the center of the table, studying the tokens that represent army units. Other commanders and officials are at the table, too. I recognize Aust Ladon, commander of the armed forces of Astine; Artavan Glass, head of the Astine Ancients’ Guild cell; and Ferdinand Stoneroot, general of the recently deceased King Arkathon’s armies. There are several other officials that I have not met before.

“Captain Trussk, reporting for duty,” I say. “What am I to do?”

“You are to lead this unit,” Peter says, gesturing to a token of a boat. I assume this represents an Astenian airship.

“We are attacking Terbinoth from the sky?”

“Yes,” Peter says, confirming my guess. “This coupled with the tunnels the dwarves have prepared allows us to entirely bypass Stronturnoth.”

“Good,” I nod. Stronturnoth would be impossible for us to defeat. Legend has it that fifty men defended the fortress against an army of more than ten thousand, and won. Granted, time has a way of distorting and exaggerating numbers, but the fact remains that no invading army has ever taken the fortress from those that defend it. Bypassing Stronturnoth will be a major advantage on our part.

“So I’m to take this airship and everyone on it. Where do I touch down?”

“You’ll attack here.” Peter points to a ridge of mountains running along the north perimeter of the battlefield. “The fortresses of Terbinoth are there, so you’ll be fighting in an urban environment.”

“Civilians?”

“I don’t think so,” Peter says. “The fortresses aren’t usually used as cities, if I understand correctly.”

“Good.” I hate fighting in civilian territory. Especially against enemies that don’t share my caution for it.

“One other thing,” Peter adds. “The boat won’t be touching down.”

I frown. “What do you mean?”

In response, he just grins. I know that grin. I’ve seen it on his face twice before. Both times, lots of Imperial soldiers have died shortly after.

 

Three hours later we’re in the air. I’m standing at the bough of the airship, watching as we ascend into the low clouds. I’ve lived in Astine for years, but rising into clouds on a boat still unnerves me. I prefer to be on the ground, ground that I know won’t buck and sway under me.

Minutes pass, the cool clouds leaving precipitation on any exposed skin. Finally, we emerge above the clouds. The sky is bright blue, and the clouds a puffy blanket of grey-white beneath us. Miles to the north, I can see mountain peaks sticking through the clouds. Terbinoth’s main fortress isn’t on the highest peak, but some of its secondary towers are.

“Get back in the clouds,” I tell the captain of the ship. “Have only the crow’s nest above so we can see where we’re going.” He relays the order to the crewmen, and they scurry to adjust the altitude of the ship.

I stare out at the mountain peaks as we begin to descend back into the clouds. I know that somewhere out there, my dearest friend is preparing to fight for the empire. I wonder what’s going through his head right now. As I slip back into the mist, fragmented memories slowly resurface, memories I haven’t relived in years.

 

*          *          *

 

“Nice one!” Tamarg grunted as my training sword smacked him in the ribs. I stepped forward and swung again, but he danced backwards and dodged. I lunged forward, overextending my leg, and he stepped to the side, catching me off-balance and scoring a hit on my thigh. I grunted and turned back to him.

“Two for two,” I said, grinning. “Next hit wins.”

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

“Good job,” I grunted, panting.

He offered me a hand up. “You too, Trussk!”

 

That was the day we first met. 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.

 

Just over ten years had passed when I fell in love. Her name was Leran, and she was more than everything I ever dreamed of finding in a partner. But when I pursued her, she refused to consider me. I was crushed; it hurt more than any physical wound I’d ever received. Tamarg was there for me.

I stared down into my half-empty mug of ale.

“I can’t believe she said no.” I felt hollow on the inside, but some unnatural energy was surging in me. I felt like my entire body was vibrating, and it hurt. What hurt the most about it was it was a kind of pain that I could do nothing to fix.

“I’m sorry, man,” Tamarg said. His voice sounded different than I’d heard it before. It sounded as though he was physically in pain as he spoke.

I nodded, dull resignation pressing on my shoulders. “Leran was…everything I could have asked for.” My voice cracked.

Tamarg shifted his weight and clenched his fist, then unclenched it. “If she said no to you, if she can’t see you for who you are, she’s not worth it.”

Intellectually, I knew that it was true. But that didn’t do anything to lessen the pain.

 

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.

 

One day, Tamarg confronted me. “Why aren’t you coming on the raid tomorrow?”

I couldn’t do anything but shake my head. “It doesn’t feel right,” I said at length, staring off over the valley.

“What?” Tamarg stared at me in shock. I could hear the disbelief in his voice.

I looked up at him from the rock I was sitting on. Being taller, I usually looked down to make eye contact with him, so this conversation felt different. “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 nodded. “I know. But I don’t think that’s right. Zerix may feel like he has to prove his military might.” I paused, figuring out what I was trying to say. “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,” Tamarg 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.”

Tamarg shook his head. “Look at the animal kingdom. Any animal that’s stronger earns more respect. You don’t earn respect through inability to act decisively.”

I thought about what he said. I don’t think I’m unable to act decisively. But I can’t bring myself to act unnecessarily.

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

“Well, you can stick to your brooding if you want.” His words cut me. Tamarg and I have had our arguments, like all close friends do, but I didn’t think he’d ever been so passive aggressive toward me.

“But I believe in strength,” he said. “Zerix is the strongest leader among us. He will bring us glory. So I will serve him.”

Tamarg turned and left me sitting on the rock, overlooking the sloping, forested hillside dropping away below me.

I look down at the palms of my hands. “Why am I like this?” I ask myself. “All the other orcs find joy in this savagery. But I can’t even get mild pleasure in killing anything, not even a deer on a hunt.”

I looked to the sky and poured my soul out to the gods. Sometimes I’m speaking out loud; other times I’m just thinking. I get to the point where I can’t really tell when I’m talking and when I’m not, but right now I don’t care. “Why are they raiding the villages with such savage glee? Why do I feel no inclination to join them? I can’t imagine killing just for the sake of killing. But that’s what I’m supposed to do!” My voice rose to a shout, and I stood up and screamed up at the sky. I didn’t care; no one was around to hear me. Tamarg was the only one that knew where I was, and he was gone.

“I’m an orc! So why can’t I kill like an orc? Is something wrong with me? Why do I want to build, to create, to love and to support, to appreciate beauty? I shouldn’t. Why can’t I yearn to sink my spear into the stomach of some peasant? Why can’t I cherish the rivulets of blood flowing down the mangled carcasses of our victims? I want to enjoy the savagery, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t.” I sunk back down to my seat on the rock, my head in my hands.

“I never have. So what’s left for me? Why am I an elf in orc’s skin? Am I doomed to this life – alone among a sea of my brethren? Never once have I wanted to kill. Every time I do, it sickens me. The first time I killed, I threw up. Whenever I think of the life draining out of that rabbit’s eyes, my own eyes mist over. It’s beyond me how anyone could find pleasure in that. But everyone else does! Am I somehow defective? Impaired? How can I justify myself? I can’t bring myself to find joy in killing. Why?”

 

I wrestled with these questions for a long time, but I never told anyone how I felt – not even Tamarg. When I had to fight, I fought, and I did everything I could to make it look like I enjoyed it as much as everyone else. I became a good actor.

Eventually, the Lord Arakal died, leaving no heir to the throne of the orcs. I saw a chance to express my views and see if others might share them. I tried to lay claim to the throne. I promised that I would make orcs far greater than they ever had been before. I spoke of leading the orcs to nonmilitary victories that would strengthen our own kingdom and secure our prosperity. But the orcs wanted Zerix to lead—even Trussk. Zerix promised tangible results, battles that would be fought and won. I knew better than to challenge Zerix to a duel for the throne. Defeated, I resolved to leave our territory and live as an exile.

 

“I wish you’d reconsider.”

I was overlooking the forest sprawling below us at the base of the cliff. The sun was rising, bathing the forest in a warm yellow-green glow.

“I can’t stay, Tamarg,” I said heavily. “You know that.” We both knew that I had been labelled as a potential enemy against Zerix. And we both knew that Zerix was not known for mercy.

“I’ll miss you.” Tamarg’s voice sounded unnatural saying those words. I smiled, overcome with bittersweet nostalgia.

“You too, brother.” I gripped his hand, staring into his eyes.

Then I turned and left.

 

I traveled for two years, finding work as I could, never staying more than a month in any one place. One day, I arrived in the City-State of Astine. I came to a sanctuary in an isolated area of the city-state, and asked if I could stay the night. The head of the sanctuary welcomed me in. He was an elderly human who introduced himself as Framan. He asked me of myself, and I guardedly told him of my travels. Over dinner, though, he pressed farther into my personal life.

 

“You are an orc,” Framan said. “I have scarcely met an orc that simply traveled around as you. Why do you travel alone? Why do you not engage in raids as the other orcs?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. I realized that I would probably never see this man again, and something in me desired to open up to him. “I have never been able to enjoy killing as my brethren do.”

“You are not alone,” a low voice growled. A massive orc walked into the room. He had slate grey skin, and he rivalled Zerix in size.

Framan introduced us. “Trussk, meet Charg. In his whole life, he has never hurt so much as a fly.”

Charg sat down across from me, his heft rattling the chair. “You say you feel no urge to kill. You find no pleasure in it.”

“Right. You don’t either?” I was astounded. I wasn’t alone in the world. I found it difficult to believe that this huge hulk of an orc never hurt anything, but if he truly didn’t, then Charg would understand me.

I poured out my struggle to them. They listened patiently, answering questions as I asked them. I soon realized that none of my questions had clear-cut answers, but were fuzzier than a black and white morality.

“Just stay true to yourself,” Charg said. “For me, that means never harming a single thing. For most orcs, that means violently proving their worth. For you? Only you can know what it means.”

 

I stayed with them for the better part of a year, grateful to have finally found people that understood me.

 

One day, however, we received word that a war had started. Astine was not directly involved, but it would still feel the effects of war. Zerix had sworn loyalty to the new Emperor Dravac. Zerix claimed that the war would bring hardship, but as a result there would be greater respect for orcs. I was wary of Zerix’s proclamation. The war would cause hardship, but orcs running the lives of other species would cause misery for everyone involved, even the orcs; orcs are not meant to lead politically complex kingdoms. Framan and Charg took the news sadly, but did nothing to speak out against it. I was surprised. I couldn’t stand by and do nothing when I could fight to protect the lives of the innocent.

I took up my sword again and left the sanctuary.

Over the next few months I found my way into the ranks of the Ancients’ Guild, a secret society of soldiers, thieves, and spies fighting against the imperial forces. In Astine, most of what we did was peaceful, covert protest against the war. But we were always prepared to leap to battle if the need arose.

Finally, it did. A battle was raging near Astine’s borders, and the Ancients’ Guild sprang to help King Arkathon’s army.

I waded through choking smoke in the forest. 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. It wasn’t more than a minute before the imperials rushed out of the smoke on the other side of the hill. And Tamarg was with them.

 

“Attack!” Tamarg shouted. The imperial orcs rushed forward, raising their weapons against us. I shouted the same command to my men, and they sprang to meet the imperial attack head-on.

Tamarg drew his sword and held it at his side as he walked toward me. It had been years since I had seen my friend. I didn’t expect us to meet again under these circumstances. I held my sword loosely in my left hand. Tamarg knew that there was no way I could score a hit against him like that. I was nonverbally calling for a truce.

I faked a swing at him, which he effortlessly blocked. Just from that one interaction, I knew that he was far more in practice than I was. I hadn’t fought in over three years, with the exception of a little sparring with other soldiers to get back in practice. It certainly wasn’t enough to match Tamarg’s level of expertise.

Nonetheless, Tamarg allowed me to drive him backwards until we were obscured by the smoke of the forest.

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

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

I nod. “How’s Kala?”

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

An unexpected well of sentiment flooded me. I felt a tear working its way out my eye.

One of my men burst into vision and charged. I looked down. I couldn’t tell him not to attack, and I couldn’t ask Tamarg not to fight back.

I heard my soldier’s body fall to the ground, and I looked back to my friend. I couldn’t help but stare down at the dead body at his feet. It was still twitching. I knew him. His name was Aral. I wasn’t close with him, but he was still one of my friends. I would mourn for him with everyone else when the battle was over.

Tamarg and I both knew that I should have helped my soldier. I would reconcile with that later. Right then, I needed to talk to Tamarg.

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

“And you?” he asked me.

I shrugged. “I’m managing. Have some good friends.” I tried not to think about Aral as I said it.

“Glad to hear it.” Tamarg’s voice was forced. He never was good at compliments, but I knew he meant it.

“I have to fight,” he said at length.

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

“Never.”

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

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

I thought about that, and about Zerix, Aral, Tamarg, Charg, Framan, Arkathon, Dravac, and myself. We are all very different, and we fight different battles, but we have one thing in common. “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.

Tamarg raised his sword and delivered a fake swing. I ducked under it and grabbed Tamarg’s hand in a quick embrace that to a bystander would look like an attack.

“I’ll make my men withdraw,” I told him. “Don’t pursue us.”

“Deal.”

“I’ll miss you, Tamarg. Take care of yourself.” I pretended to stumble away from my friend. At my order, my men retreated, and Tamarg took the hill.

I haven’t seen him since.

 

*          *          *

 

The battle has started. I can hear our armies exchanging blows with the imperials on the battlefield below. The sounds are muted; I am below decks with my men, preparing for the part of the battle that we are to fight.

I hear our ship raining projectiles down on the fortresses below us.

“It won’t be long now!” I shout to my men. “Be sure your suits are secure!”

My men comply as I check my own suit. Peter is a genius. This is what he was alluding to in our meeting earlier. We will literally be jumping out of the boat while it’s still in the air. Each of these suits are essentially harnesses that have floatrock strapped to our backs. When we pull a key, the floatrock will be heated, and our fall will be slowed so that when we hit the ground we won’t hurt ourselves.

In addition to our normal weapons, we all have body shields that have arrow slits in them, and hand crossbows. As we’re falling, we can fire down at the enemy with much less risk of being shot down ourselves.

The side of our ship splinters as a large, smooth rock smashes through the hull. The ship isn’t seriously damaged, but it’s still unnerving.

“It’s time!” a crewman shouts down at me.

“Open the doors!”

With a groan, the trapdoor opens from the underside of our ship. Hundreds of men follow my lead as we jump out into the air, descending toward the imperials at a freefall.

I pull the key, heating the floatrock and decelerating my fall. I hear my men following my lead, and we open fire. Our crossbow bolts rain down on the imperials, forcing them to scramble for cover.

Below me, I see an armored orc running for cover in a nearby warehouse. Was that Tamarg? I didn’t get a good enough look to know for sure, but I think it was. What will I do if I’m forced to confront him? It’s hard enough for me to fight anyone at all, let alone my best friend.

We drop to the ground, dropping our body shields in favor of our own personal weapons. I look around; I have almost thirty men with me, and I know there are many more scattered throughout the general area.

“What now?” one of them asks me.

“We find the imperials and end this once and for all.”

We come to a rubble-filled plaza. Imperials are rushing toward us from the other side of it. I immediately recognize Zerix on his wolf mount. At his side is Tamarg.

Tamarg 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 Tamarg to take me. I know Tamarg will have to fight to prove his loyalty to Zerix.

It breaks my heart. But I remember what I said to him the last time I saw him. 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.

I score a hit; my iron sword smacks him in the ribs. His armor is the only thing that keeps him from sustaining a crippling wound. As it is, he staggers back, but he’s still light enough on his feet do avoid my next swing.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“So am I.”

I lunge forward, and Tamarg steps to the side, catching me off-balance and scoring a hit on my thigh. I grunt and turn to face him, grimacing.

I see something in Tamarg’s eyes that I’ve seen in other orcs before, but never him. True bloodlust. A growl escapes from the back of his throat.

My friend sprints toward me, but I parry and force my sword closer to him. He dodges to one side, and my sword barely misses him. He swings his sword up, but I move in close, catching the hilt of his sword with my elbow and knocking it away.

I swing at the same time, but Tamarg ducks backwards under the blow. He turns the motion into an attack, sweeping my legs out from under me.

I crash to the ground.

Tamarg grabs his sword, victory in his countenance. I will not do anything to hurt my brother, but I won’t sit idly by and do nothing to defend myself.

I start to scramble up, but I’m not fast enough to dodge Tamarg’s thrust. His sword pierces my armor, sinking into my abdomen.

Through my red-tinged vision, I look up at my friend. A new expression overtakes Tamarg’s face. Shock, horror, revulsion. He pulls the sword out. He looks around at the battlefield, then lunges down. He grabs me by the throat and slams me to the ground. The move hurts far less than I anticipate, but it still draws a strangled cough from me.

“I wish it hadn’t come to this.”

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

“I won’t kill you.”

I nod. “Lead your men.”

He starts to stand, but I grab his hand. I don’t say anything; I just squeeze his hand, conveying more emotion in that gesture than I possibly could through any words.

He grasps my hand for just a fraction of a second. He pulls a dagger and raises it high.

“Trust me,” he whispers.

I trust him completely. I know that he will never know just how deeply I trust him. Even if he chooses in this moment to kill me, I still will trust his decision.

He brings the dagger down, twisting it at the last second so the blade skids along my armor instead of into my flesh.

I drop to the ground, playing dead.

 

*          *          *

 

I don’t open my eyes until I can’t hear a single echo of clashing steel. Scavenging birds are circling overhead, picking at the dead and dying bodies around me. I flinch as one nears me, and it flaps away when it sees I’m still alive.

I stay on the ground, unable to summon the energy to stand. Intense pain shakes my torso. Eventually, I’ll have to get up, or else help will come. Right now, I only wonder how Tamarg is. I don’t know if he will live or die. I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again. All I know is I’m deeply grateful for him. In the end, we didn’t agree, and it led to a near-fatal battle. But when all is said and done, that didn’t really matter. We both followed our hearts, our beliefs, and that’s what matters to me. Even if he had killed me, he would have still been my best friend, my brother.

Tamarg was driven by his need to fight. I was driven by my need to protect. Both were fully legitimate, and both were the correct roads for us to walk.

“Thank you,” I pray to Leja and Traknag, “for putting Tamarg in my life. May he always find favor in your sight.”

I writhe as another wave of pain overtakes my body. Finally, I muster the strength to roll over and stand. Leaning on a broken spear, I walk away from the battlefield.

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