The dirt was soft, scattered with grass and mostly free of stones, so it didn’t hurt so much when I slipped out of the horse seat and hit the stony ground.
My orc parts were broken. We had been pursued the entire day, and I had spent the whole time clinging to the Wind-Step’s neck and hair, my parts squishing against the leather seat with every rise and fall of the horse. The rest of my body ached as well, they had been the reason I had fallen, but none of them compared to my orc parts. What happened to an orc with broken parts? Did they fall off? Did they shrivel up? Or maybe they just grew black and useless. I had no reference to compare to. I wished the Lead-Ar had tried to ride Wind-Step at a run. If he had I might still be home, sitting in my tent by a warm fire, rubbing away the bruises of a well deserved beating from my father, instead of lying face down in the dirt.
I rolled onto my back and watched snowflakes drift down. My body wanted to rest. My body was also getting cold and wanted to move. Sometimes I feel like I have a dozen orcs inside me, all yelling, each too stupid to think about the rest of me. My mouth was the worst. It was the reason I was in this mess.
Wind-Step walked up and stood over me, her breath misty as it came out of her thick lips. Her brown eyes peered down at me and she made a little horse noise. I couldn't speak horse, but I could feel her amusement. She did not seem tired at all. It wasn’t fair that the elven horse got to have four legs, flying like the wind in a way I never could. Why couldn't I have four legs? Two were definitely inferior. Maybe my orc parts would be too hurt and decide they wanted be legs instead. They wouldn't be very useful anymore, even if all of the bits recovered I would never be allowed even one foot on the tribe's breeding ladder.
Wind-Step nudged me with her head and planted a wet kiss on my forehead. I tried to push her away but she kissed again, leaving my hair and melted ear slick with spit. I always seemed to be covered in the stuff, whether it was from my father, Flat-Stone, the Lead-Ar, or the dragon.
“Alright, I'll get up! Just stop that!"
Wind-Step planted one last sloppy kiss on my cheek and stepped back.
I got up. No part of my body liked it. All the orcs inside me shouted in a pained chorus. My eyes fell to the pack strapped to the horse seat. The curious part of me wanted nothing more than to open it up, pull out the human book, sit on the ground, and try to read. It was a really dumb idea, and I told my curiosity so. The tribe was still chasing me, following the trail of horse tracks though the snow. I couldn't even understand all the squiggles and shapes inside, what the Remember-Ar said were letters. The book was also heavy. I really should have left it behind, I knew that, but I couldn't bear it. Second-Leaf had died for that book. If I left it behind he would have died for nothing.
Wind-Step rubbed her nose against my chest. I scratched her under the jaw with one hand and wiped the spit away with the other.
“I know we need to keep moving. Just let me walk a while.”
Wind-Step bobbed her head and continued on. I hobbled after, smacking my thighs and calves with my hands to ease some of the aches out. It must have been late afternoon by now, but with the clouds and snow falls it was hard to tell. Walking didn't hurt as much as riding. My body was used to walking, it had been doing it since my small blunc days under the Pig-Ar's care. We continued on until the sky darkened and the snow eased. The pain in my muscles had faded a bit, though as the light faded so did the warmth of my body. I began to shiver. Goosebumps covered everything. My feet were numb.
I ran a few steps, grabbed the leather straps around Wind-Step’s head, and pulled her to a halt. Strapped to the side of the pack was a pair of leather boots, the ones the Mend-Ar had made to replace the pair that I and my curiosity had lost. I reached out and ran my fingers along the leather. It was good cowhide, held together by thick double stitches.
“I’m sorry, father. These were meant for you.”
I squeezed my teeth and tusks shut, trying to resist to urge to break down and howl along with the wind and snow around me. My father would not have approved of the notion. Thinking of him made me smile. Talking to the boots was pretty silly, I knew that. I didn’t care though. I had to talk to something. Being quiet was just not my thing.
“I’m not strong like you, but I’ll try to be brave.”
The boots remained silent. I probably had a better chance of learning to speak horse than boot. The horse seemed to understand me well enough. That was a good thing, I knew that. It was also something that irritated me. If the horse had learned orcish during the month the Lead-Ar rode her back to my village then the horse was probably smarter than I was. I didn’t like the idea.
The boots were too big for me by at least an inch. I needed them though, I didn’t have my blunc foot wraps with me, and I remembered what the Mend-Ar had told me about trying to walk without the correct number of toes. In the pack I found two pairs of socks, my only two. I put one on, and shoved the other into the toes of the boots. I slipped the boots on and took a dozen steps around Wind-Step. The result was good, my thin legs made the leather a bit loose around my calves, but the heel and toe fit snugly.
A roar shook the mountain, the thunder of a thousand serpents.
I fell to the ground, tucking myself into a ball. My ruined cheek burned. It remembered the fire. I pushed my face into the cold snow.
“Please don’t see me! Please don’t see me! Please don’t-”
Wind-Step’s mouth nudged my back. I breathed in deep, sucking in wind for courage, and looked up. The sky was clear, there was no dragon, though the great voice of the Lady of the Mountain continued to echo on and on for a long time. Wherever it was the dragon was many miles away. If it flew above I would have nowhere to hide. If I was lucky it would cook me and eat me on the spot. Then again, I had already caused it lot of trouble for the dragon, likely I would be unlucky and it would smother me in kisses. I raised a hand and touched my scarred cheek and melted ear. I did not want any more dragon kisses.
I stood and reached into my pack again, grabbed my woolen sweater and pulled it on. I reached in one last time for the wolfskin cloak, draping it over my shoulders. Between the boots and sweater and cloak I felt a lot warmer. Winter was coming, was already here really, and I couldn’t go around in a thin shirt and pants like I had all of autumn.
The dragon roared again. I resisted the urge to hide, though every part of me trembled. I swallowed down a roll of spit, put my foot in the horse-seat’s steel footrest, and hopped back on the back of Wind-Step. My leg muscles whined when I put them in the steel footrests, but my orc parts were grateful for the lift; they couldn’t really take any more punishment.
I took hold of the leather straps and gave her a light kick. I was starting to understand the horse a little, the straps could be used to stop and go left and right, and if I kicked she would go faster. I had only figured these things out after fleeing for most of the day, and my orc parts were not very happy about my slow riding progression. They were so tender that even pressed against the horse seat they throbbed.
Orcs should not ride horses. It was stupid. The way I was going I was probably going to die from broken parts before I died from raging orcs or from boiling in a pot of stew for the dragon’s entertainment. I wanted to scream as much to Wind-Step, it was partly her fault. However, if she understood me and ran off I would be in a lot of trouble. Alone the other orcs would catch me. I needed to fly with the wind. I needed her. She didn’t need me though, and she could have ran off over a dozen times already.
The snow grew more sparse and eventually stopped entirely. The wind blew away the clouds overhead and the sky opened up, spreading the light of a thousand on a thousand stars across the mountain. I was grateful for the light.
Late in the night we arrived near the bottom of the mountain. I had only ever known stone and snow and high places. Now I was somewhere else—entering another world where orcs weren’t welcome. It’s not like we were welcome on the mountain either, the ogres hated us, and the dragon often ate us, but up there was our homes, and our friends the giants. Down here was elves and humans, the races orcs had been warring against for more cycles than I could count, them and all kinds of monsters that would probably love to chew up a little nameless blunc like me.
All my life I had been filled with questions, yet never really listening to the answers. My father had tried to teach me lesson after lesson so I might outlast him; survive on in a world that had a thousand on a thousand ways to kill me. It took watching My Father get an ax in his head for my stupid brain to finally realize one simple truth.
Knowing was life and death.
If I wanted to have any kind of a chance at all I had to understand what made dragons do what dragons do. If I could predict the Lady of the Mountain I could stay one step ahead, out of sight and range of dragonflame. Maybe, just maybe, I might even find a way to fight back.
I needed to learn, all the letters and words in Second-Leaf’s book and more.
I needed answers.
There was a fork in the road. The left path was wide, almost free of shrubs and trees, opening up into a wide grassy plain. The coast would be beyond, and the stone walled cities of the humans. The right path was narrow and overgrown with grass and shrubs, leading to a dense forest of tall trees. The path was dark, the canopy above eating up the starlight. That path lead to the elves, the sneaky ones who fought with shadows, silence, and arrows. In the plains I might be able to run from the humans, in the forest I would be dead before I even knew my foes were there. Orcs wore thick armor and carried wide shields when they hunted elves. I had neither.
Elves or humans?
The dragon's roar thundered a third time. I trembled and turned my head around, staring up at the distant mountain peaks. The dragon would hunt me down when she found out I had left, she had to, not because she needed to eat me, not because I was important, but because I had slighted her, broke my promise to wait to be eaten like a good orc. The dragon would punish my tribe, and when it was done having fun with that it would come after personally, driven by rage or pride or boredom or whatever it was that made dragons do what dragons do. I didn’t have all the answers yet, but I knew that I had to hide, and those trees were the only thing that could hide me from the sky.
I already had orcs and dragons to worry about. Living to a wrinkled old age was impossible. A third foe couldn’t make impossible worse, three might even be lucky.
I took one last look back at my mountain home, squeezed the leather straps in my hands, and wheeled Wind-Step towards the forest.