I recently finished the second draft of a story I’m working on, and I decided to share it online. I’m sharing one chapter at a time, and the story is about 487,000 words right now (roughly 5 paperback novels in length, give or take), so this will take awhile.
I estimate that 2nd draft is about 80% of the way there, story-wise; but 80% is not 100%. This chapter might show up in the final story completely unchanged. It might show up with minor changes, or heavy revisions; or might be cut from the final draft completely. If it does remain, it might be in a new place in the story or the same place.
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Iliar stretched, yawned, and his eyes opened.
He was lying in the Matriarch’s spare bed. He groaned and rolled over, enjoying the feeling of the sun on his face. He closed his eyes, relaxing as the hot sun shone red through his eyelids.
Even after all this time, it was good to feel the sun.
He had been here for thirty-one days now–this morning would be his thirty-second. He kept very detailed track of the days, and he didn’t let them blur together. Not like they had on that Gods-be-damned ship. Never like that again.
But here…he stretched again, climbed off of the lumpy bed and threw off the rough brown blanket. Here, every day was good.
He awoke at dawn, with the Matriarch calling for him to come have breakfast and start chores. That had been his first shock. She didn’t treat him like a prisoner, not even after he had told her on that first night that he killed Gan’ash. She had treated him…like a son, he had realized in surprise.
He climbed out of bed each day and padded to the kitchen, barefoot on the dirt floor, kicking up little puffs of dust with each step. There was porridge and meat waiting for him in dishes emblazoned with gold and silver. Lots of meat. Even Iliar, used to eating enough to feed his whole family back in his home city, had been shocked by how much orcs ate. They shoveled down bacon and ham and thick sauces on black bread, and pitchers of cold water fresh from the stream or mulled wine.
Iliar ate at the same table as the Matriarch’s four sons, massive creatures who towered over Iliar even though the Matriarch talked to them like they weren’t fully grown. She fussed over a rip in one’s tunic, and insisted that another one eat fourth helpings of ham so he would have the strength for his first hunt soon.
The four huge orcs regarded Iliar, and the first time he had seen them his mind had flashed back to what that yellow-haired man had said and he had grasped hurriedly for his magic. But they weren’t hostile, not ever. They were…confused by him to begin with, but by now they accepted his presence the same way they accepted the wolves or the deer. A part of life, here for now and maybe gone tomorrow but maybe not.
Iliar walked into the kitchen, and the oldest orc–still not ready to leave the house and live on his own according to the Matriarch, as his first hunt had been delayed due to the wolves–grinned and thumped Iliar on the shoulder. It felt like a sledgehammer. Iliar hid his wince and punched the creature back.
According to the orcs, Iliar was big for a human. So big, so broad and muscled, that they’d quickly given up treating him like balsa wood and had instead decided that they could thump him as hard as they thumped each other.
Iliar still had the bruises from the first bout of wrestling where they’d decided this. He grinned. At least he still had all his teeth.
And he hadn’t really held his own–it hadn’t felt sporting to use magic, and without magic the thinnest wrestler was twice his weight and could probably juggle tree trunks–but he had given a few good hits back. That was worth something at least.
After the third helping of ham–Iliar had never seen a pig before coming to the village, but the fat hogs led to the butcher’s every few days could produce a lot of meat–it was off to chores for the day.
Each of the four youths was an apprentice to another orc in the village. The oldest was training to be a warrior, and while he waited for his Hunt, he sparred with the other warriors and they trained him on swords and spears and his massive fists. Iliar watched him with interest. He might enjoy learning the sword or the spear. Rorin had been a master with the thick quarterstaff that had often leaned against the wall of their home, and Iliar knew how well that had served him. He hadn’t mustered the courage to ask the warriors to train him yet. He wasn’t scared of their massive weapons or the fact that they thumped each other hard enough to knock a man out cold. But…he groped for words, even in his own head. It just didn’t feel right.
He had almost forgotten his quest for the orc-pit; had almost forgotten his vow to find them and slay every bastard orc in there and free everyone indebted to them. It still mattered, but….he groped for words again. The passion inside him felt cooler now, less intense. Like something he should want. He missed it sometimes, and fumbled after it, but….
He had a family now. For almost the first time that he could remember he had people who cared about him. That first night, when the Matriarch had seen him covered in blood, his eyes huge and shocked with what he’d done and where he was being taken, still scared and with a death-grip on that knife’s wire hilt….she had just smiled down at him and told him dinner was in an hour and he could eat with her if he liked.
It was such a small thing. Just being looked at, being seen, by another creature with eyes to see him. Being offered a kindness after centuries without it, like he was no different from one of her children.
And Iliar had bowed his head and cried.
That first night, when Iliar was bundled on the lumpy bed with coarse brown blankets, in his own room even though the Matriarch’s own sons slept two to a room, he had curled into a ball and had cried.
Tears had ran down his face, and his whole body shook with the force of his sobs. For the first time in three hundred years, the first time in almost as long as he could remember, someone had shown him kindness. The Matriarch had treated him, not like a prisoner to be fed or someone to be scared of, but…like a person. Like a son.
And that one act of kindness had wormed through the stone around his heart and made a crack.
As the other boys wandered off to their apprenticeships, Iliar helped the Matriarch with her duties for the day. He helped her clean after breakfast, wiping down the bowls with gold and silver in them and leaving them to dry in the sun, sweeping out the corners of the cottage where small rodents congregated, making more food for the midday meal.
But the Matriarch also had other duties. Throughout the day, orcs trickled in and out of her large home, seeking advice. Two small sisters wouldn’t stop fighting, and would barely look at each other as the Matriarch lectured them about the importance of camaraderie especially with the wolves hunting. It was too dangerous out there, the Matriarch intoned, for two smart girls who their families needed to waste their days squabbling and back-biting.
By the end, both girls were standing taller and straighter, their animosity buried beneath the responsibility of having each others’ backs in a dangerous time.
Iliar watched as the Matriarch dispensed justice and wisdom, as she healed wounds between families and kept the village running smoothly. Even the tribe leader, a hulking orc twelve feet tall who was her male counterpart, ducked his head to fit inside her door and asked her humbly for advice.
Iliar watched all of it. She seemed to want him to. It didn’t feel like she was grooming him, like she was trying to train him in these things. It felt…he frowned. It felt more like she thought he was a small child, too small to be off apron-strings, who needed to be with her every moment while she was doing her work.
Iiar gritted his teeth when he realized that. Even Rorin and his mother hadn’t treated him like this, not since he had been old enough to walk. But he found it hard to be too angry. It wasn’t that she thought he was an infant, he thought to himself. Not really. She just didn’t know what to do with him.
He was a human in an orc encampment. He was half the size of her sons, themselves not fully grown. He had no skills except woodworking, knew nobody, and had spent half of his days here in a sort of daze without speaking.
What was she to do with him, if not keep him close? It grated on him, but if a strange child had come to his doorstep when he was younger, with no skills and knowing no-one’s name, some days barely speaking and others desperate to be with people and soak up his time with them, would his mother have treated the child any differently?
Still, it galled Iliar. Not the Matriarch’s actions; she could never bother him. But his own.
Underneath the wonderful, warm feeling of having a family around him again. Underneath the happiness of seeing the sun, and his growing confidence as he learned to wrestle and throw punches with the orcs. Underneath the warmth and tenderness he felt from the Matriarch, and how his heart seemed to crack open every time she smiled at him.
Underneath all of that, he still felt…empty.
What was a man to do?
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