The green was everywhere.
I had never seen anything like it. High in the mountains there was nothing but rocks. The few plants that grew seemed to do so from sheer force of will, and were usually as brown and gray and ugly as the dirt and stones. Here life pressed in from all sides, busy and bustling and overflowing. Even the bare trees that had given most of their yellow and orange leaves to the forest floor still felt huge and full of life. I was used to being able to see for miles around. How was I supposed to see the elves coming with all these tall trees and fat leaved shrubs only a few orc-feet away? There could be all kinds of monsters behind all those sinister looking green leaves, just waiting for an foolish blunc to wander into their trap. Luckily Wind-Step was as quiet as her name as she walked, barely breaking a twig.
I didn’t see any animals, but birds sung constantly. There must have been hundreds just in this patch of forest. My mother surely have loved it here. No wonder she didn’t want to come home. She would be able to chew up all the hollow bones and feathers she wanted. My mother had once eaten a live bird, throwing it in whole and tweeting into her mouth. I would have to keep the birds in mind when I ran out of food. The small supply of hard bread and dried meat I had would only last a few days. On the bright side I at least had a little salt in case I had to eat ogre again.
Words came as we rode on. I have never been very good at keeping them in. Silence was safer, I knew that, but the words didn’t know or didn’t care, they needed to get out. I needed them to come out.
“Once I used to think that my mother would eat me.”
Wind-step said nothing, only trudged onward.
“You never had to worry about your mother eating you, Wind-Step, I know, but if you grew up in my tribe you would have ran away too. My kin will eat anything it they are hungry enough.”
I glanced at the forest around me, looking for orcs.
“Mother, well, she used to chase me around the tents every time she came home, arms outstretched. She never said anything, and I could never tell if her stone face was angry or sad or frustrated; it never changed. Mother would try for sun-step after sun-step, but I am the wind and my mother is a stone and eventually she would have to give up. Mother only caught me once, at the start of this autumn, sneaking up from behind and squeezing me to her chest. It felt good, somehow.”
Wind-Step was quiet.
“After all my worrying mother didn’t eat me, not even a finger or ear’s worth. Probably never did want to. She smiled at me when I faced Fire-Hawk, smiled maybe her first smile ever, or her second, she must have given my father at least one for all the tribute he stole away to give her in secret.”
I wriggled my toes in my father’s boots, feeling the leather that was meant to belong to him.
“All that running around tents for season after season for nothing. I should have let her catch me more often.” I looked at the trail behind us. “Mother is with them. Maybe I should let her catch me?”
Wind-Step neighed her thoughts on the matter.
“You are right, it’s a bad idea.”
I turned back to the forest before me. “Father caught me many times. Used the back of his hand to try and teach me to be a good blunc and stop talking so much. I was never very good at listener, Wind-Step, so you have to listen for me, keep an ear out for all the orcs and elves and monsters, alright?”
Wind-Step nodded her horse head, and we continued on.
I rode Wind-Step most of the night. When my legs couldn’t take anymore riding I got off and walked till dawn, my father’s heavy winter boots making a musical rhythm of crushed plants and snapped swigs, Wind-Step flicking me with her tail every time I got too loud.
By noon my legs couldn’t take that either, so I got back on Wind-Step and laid face down sideways on the seat, my arms and legs dangling over the side. I didn’t need the leather guiding straps anyway. I had given up trying to tell her where to go when we entered the forest. This was her home. I just had to hope that she didn’t decide to lead me back to the elves. Surely helping her master was worth at least that much in whatever four legged system of morality Wind-Step possessed.
Night fell again and I could go no further. I slumped down with my back against a thick tree trunk, ate a bite of bark-like dry meat and stone-like bread, and washed it down with a swig leather flavored water. Lowered my head to my pack and I closed my eyes. Somehow I had managed a whole day without dying from elves or broken parts.
It was uncomfortable trying to sleep with boots on, my ankles told me so, but my feet told my ankles to shut up and be quiet. My feet liked being warm, and right now they were much warmer than the rest of me. Every muscle was sore from riding for a day and night and day, and I stunk worse than a dozen pigs combined. Once my nose realized that how badly I stunk it seemed to have trouble un-smelling.
My kin had a good sense of smell, and to follow me they would follow my lingering stink as much as they would follow the snapped twigs and crushed forest floor. We orcs may not be the brightest of races, but we were expert hunters, and a large part of that skill relied on our sense of smell. We knew how to find tracks by scent as well as by touch and sight. From birth we practiced tracking pigs and other bluncs, noses pressed to the dirt and mud to get as fresh a scent as possible. First-Leaf’s mother—one of those chasing me—had once boasted she could even track birds in flight by the odor they left on the wind.
Fleeing for our lives was something we were less skilled at. Had an orc ever escaped the dragon? I had never heard of one, not even in the month I spent learning tales from the Remember-Ar. Long-Sight was kinder than most. If she knew of such a story she would have told a doomed blunc like me. I was sure of that.
I wanted to sleep. I failed. On top of all the pain and soreness and filthiness it was very, very cold. All I seemed to be able to do was shiver.
Snow had not fallen in the forest yet, but it was air was frozen enough to leave my breath misty. I pulled my wolfskin cloak tighter around me and tucked my legs in for heat.
Dead leaves and grass cracked as Wind-Step knelt down in front of me, her warm flank pressed against my body. She nuzzled my face, her breath hot on my skin. She smelt heavy and musky, a smell I had never known before I met her. It was strong scent, and it would be an easy one for the others to follow. Right now I didn’t really mind though, somehow the smell was comforting. It reminded me that I was not alone in this strange green land; that I had at least a slim chance to survive.
I stared into her deep brown eyes, and as I did I knew that there was no way she wasn’t going to take me to elves, somehow I just couldn’t imagine it. Wind-Step wouldn’t hurt me, nor lead me into danger. I reached forward and hugged her long horse head close. Wind-Step was my friend, the only one left to me now. As long as I had her I would always be warm.
Wet horse kisses woke me, and my mind and body whined that it was far too soon, even with the light of the sun filtering through the trees. With the thick canopy above it was hard to tell whether it was morning or afternoon. Either way I had slept too long. Every muscle and joint in my body denied it, and my orc parts still said they planned to die, but I didn’t have time to listen, I had to go. But...
I looked up at Wind Step’s gray furred head. “I don’t know what to do.”
Wind Step snorted something in horse.
My eyes scanned the forest, every patch looking like the next. Which direction had we had come from?
Wind Step tapped a hoof on the ground, neighing more horsish. She hit the ground again and again.
“I know we have to go, alright!” I squeezed my hands into fists. “I mean, I want to live. I don’t want to die, its just, its just... is that it? Just run forever?”
Wind Step stared at me silently.
“Probably can’t even understand me. Stupid horse.”
Wind Step head-butted me.
I raised a hand in submission and rubbed my wounded forehead with the other.
Wind Step whinnied a reply and grinned horsishly.
I put my hands on my thighs for leverage, stood, and picked up my heavy pack, grunting from the effort. Every orc inside me complained in its own way, my feet said sore, my legs burning, and my orc parts broken. Only my lazy arms said nothing; at some point I really needed learn how to walk on them. My body was too weak to cope with this whole running for my life thing.
Hopefully my tribe wasn’t coping much better. Even after many cycles of raiding their bodies couldn’t be taking running all day too much better than mine—and I had a horse. It was a silly hope, but it was all I had.
I took a swig of water to wet my throat, lifted myself up into the horse seat, and gave Wind-Step a light tap on the flanks, trusting her to take me somewhere away from our pursuers and anything else that might want to kill me. In this weird green land there were probably a lot of things that liked eating little bluncs. Her hooves were quiet as always, barely making a sound.
After a while a dull roar began to fill my ears. I didn’t know what it was until we broke the tree line and came upon a rocky river. The water was traveling so fast it was white and screaming as it hit the rocks, a sound that I must have been water pain, the whiteness some kind of water blood. High up the streams were thin and shallow and could usually be stepped over. This thing was wider than four giants, or about a fifteen orc-lengths. The Remember-Ar had told me about rivers and lakes and seas and oceans, all the places water could hide and travel. I had never seen those places and never really knew what she always referred to our mountain stream as “a giant’s piss worth of water”. This river was very different. How was I meant to traverse such a monster?
Wind-Step walked along the bank until the white water grew calm and clear. The river was still wide, and I was sure that crossing it was still a bad idea for a blunc who could barely swim holding the Remember-Ar’s hands. I watched the water flow, then sniffed an armpit, my nose twisting at the smell of three days of running-for-my-life sweat. The water called to me, whispering of its purity and the chance to free myself and Wind-Step of most of our own stink.
Clean we would have a far better chance of escaping the noses of my pursuers. It was a chance I had to take. The river looked calm, and I didn’t need to go in far to wash. Wind-Step and I had traveled a long way over the last two days. My kin must have been a long way off, and any time I lost bathing was sure to be made up by the advantage of the pair of us not smelling so horrible. In our current state it would be almost effortless for the others to track us.
Grinning I hopped down, slipped off my clothes, boots, and socks, placed them in Wind-Step’s pack, and hurried over to the river. Blissfully cool water and coarse sand slipped between my toes. Water worn stones came next as I went further in, learning forward to keep my balance against the current, stepping from rock to rock until I the water was up to my waist. I scooped my hands down and bought the clear water above me, letting it fall like rain. I bought more up, washed and scrubbed with my fingers and nails, cleaning my armpits and orc parts and everything else, cleansing all but the most stubborn trace of stink away.
I let out a long sigh, my broken parts sighing with me as the coolness drew away some of the pain.
Splashing sounds drew my attention back to the river bank. Wind-Step waded in after me, already up to her knees. It was only fair, she probably wanted to be clean too.
I glanced over my shoulder. The river was wide. Deep.
Wind-Step stepped past me, heading for the deep water. If she went in too far my food and supplies and the book-
The book. It would be ruined. I tried to grab the leather horse straps and missed.
“Stop, come back!”
I took a step forward and slipped on a flat stone. I tumbled backwards into the water, and for a moment I heard the ghost of Flat-Stone laughing, her voice bellowing as if the stone was part of her revenge.
My head went under and water roared in my ears, bubbles and blurry light replacing sky and trees and Wind-Step.
Disclaimer: This sample has not seen alpha-readers, my editor, or a proofreader yet, and will differ from the final published version.