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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The lack of purpose gnawed on Iliar.
Some days he fet like himself, felt whole and healthy as he worked and ate and slept with the Matriarch’s family. He took up woodworking–there wasn’t a need for the fine ornaments that Papa had carved, but he carved two chairs out of a tree trunk that must have been a hundred years old. That had been a special challenge, harder than he had anticipated–chairs were easy, but how did he brace it all to withstand five hundred pounds of solid muscle when an orc sat on it? Especially with how wide it had to be, twice as wide as the chairs Iliar had made for Rorin in what felt like another life.
He started training with weapons, his hesitance fading as he realized that the orcs saw him as one of their own. That first day, Iliar was thumped with the butt end of a spear hard enough that he could barely walk out of the grass clearing where they fought together. But the Matriarch had given him some green and yellow cream that stank like a week-old bird corpse and healed his muscles like magic, and the next day he was back in the clearing.
He kept taking thumps, but he started to give them too. The full-grown orcs mostly laughed off his blows–he doubted he could knock the hunt leader out even if the orc stayed still and let him clobber his head with the butt of Iliar’s tree-trunk-like spear–but it felt good to land them.
With magic, he thought, and a spear or a sword, maybe he could do something.
It wouldn’t be sporting, of course, to bring his magic into the small grass clearing lined with leafy trees where they trained together. He didn’t know if the orcs had magic, but if so they had never used it on him. They didn’t use anything but their sheer brawn and ferocity and their skill with weapons.
But that just intensified his desire for a real contest. A real fight, with stakes that mattered–not just being able to boast to the other hunter about how he had held his own, but a fight with the lives of people who needed him on the line.
He had almost forgotten the orc-pit he had been hunting when he came here. Had forgotten it amid the Matriarch’s bustling love and kindness, the good-natured punches and jokes of her four massive sons. Had felt his passion fade as he watched weavers and tanners and hunters going about their days, weaving thick cloth together into blankets or digging sharpened wooden spikes into the soft dirt around the village to ward off the wolves. As he talked to them about what they did, as he laughed and joked with them and as his time in the training yard earned the big creatures’ respect and honor, he felt like he was coming back into himself.
He had fewer nightmares of the ship now, didn’t wake in a cold sweat anymore with the phantom sound of waves on the hull in his ears. He talked to orcs more, was able to hold conversation longer. Didn’t lose his thoughts and stare unblinking into the trees, reliving the horror of the ship, as often as he once had.
The whole ship was starting to feel like a dream. He hadn’t really been awake for most of it, just those years at the beginning and then a few days at the end. But it all began to blur together, the endless rowing and the rich food and the darkness and the slime, until it felt more like a nightmare than a memory.
And in contrast, the bustle of the village was so…alive. Every day Iliar was wakened by the sounds of wood clattering as warriors trained together, of hogs bleating and the scrape of the tanner’s knives scraping off hair and flesh. The yells of the Matriarch for him and her sons to wake, and the deep rumble of orc conversation. Every day the smells overpowered him, sweating orcs mixed with the stench of urine from the tanner next door, mixed with the smells of ham and the savory scent of that rich sauce that the Matriarch made for the black bread.
With all of that, it was hard to care too much about the orc-pit.
But still that sense of emptiness gnawed at Iliar. Still it grew inside him, grew more the more he began to come back to himself. A man’s not a man without a purpose. That had been something Rorin had told him once. And as he was leaving the training yard one day, sixty days exactly since he had first come to the Matriarch’s doorstep, something shifted inside him and he knew he had to act.
He limped as he walked between two close-grown trees, wincing with each step on a leg that felt like it might be broken. That last crack of a spear butt into his thigh hadn’t sounded good. The good-natured jeers of the hunt leader followed him, offering to tie his arms behind his back next time if that would help Iliar land a blow.
That wasn’t fair, though. He had landed several blows, but the orc’s green skin was just so thick. Even when Iliar feinted down and then smashed the butt of his spear across the orc’s temple with a crack like thunder, the orc hadn’t gone down. He had just growled and punched Iliar, so hard the man had fallen on his back with the wind knocked out of him.
Still, Iliar’s eyes lit up as he remembered that duel. It had been his best fight in months, maybe his best ever.
And…still, at the end, he felt empty.
It had been a Hellscape of a fight, and Iliar smiled as he remembered cracking the other male in the chest hard enough to knock the wind out of him. But…what did it matter? Iliar wasn’t training to be a hunter; the village had enough hunters, and anyway Iliar on his best day couldn’t keep up with creatures who ran for eighteen hours and then fought their prey at the end of it.
He wasn’t training to be anything. Even if he beat the hunt leader in a match, what did it really matter? He would go to bed at the end of the day, maybe a little prouder and a little stronger, but not having done a Gods-be-damned thing to help the people he cared about.
The hollowness gaped inside him. The emptiness, the lack of purpose. And like a key clicking into a lock, something clicked in Iliar and he knew what he had to do.
He barely noticed the village as he ran through it, down paths of dirt between wooden buildings, past five fat and hairy hogs in a fenced enclosure together, past the big square building used for praying to the Gods and for special ceremonies–Iliar hadn’t been allowed in there, but the orcs had always looked more peaceful coming out–and down to the Matriarch’s large home.
He checked the sky. He and the other warriors worked themselves into a lather in the morning, with the result that the sun was nearing its peak in a cloudy blue sky. Good. The Matriarch’s doors were always open, but it was good to ask at high noon when she was especially open to deeper questions.
A pair of orcs were just leaving, a young couple who had been arguing for weeks and now walked arm in arm out of the home, as Iliar skidded to a stop at the entryway.
Iliar walked inside, ducking his head to fit under the worked wooden doorway. It was only five feet high, so low that even Iliar couldn’t walk under it straight-backed, and the orcs needed to bend over double. The Matriarch had told him that it was to encourage humility. Once you were in her home, you could stand up straight; but when you were a supplicant for her advice, it reminded you of your humility if just for a moment.
The house was four main rooms, three bedrooms and a large kitchen. The threshold opened right onto the kitchen, which was where most business was done. The Matriarch would sit down at one end of the long oak table, massive green fingers steepled as she heard you.
Light shone in from two large windows, and a gentle breeze that felt good against his sweat-soaked skin. Even with the windows the kitchen was dark. Not gloomy, not like the ship–just, dark. Shadows clung to the walls, and at the head of her oak table the Matriarch was steeped in shadow.
Iliar walked up to the table, and took a seat longways across from her. He shifted in the giant chair, oak and made for someone twice his width.
She looked at him as he sat down. Her broad green face was lined with shadow.
“You have the air of questioning about you, Iliar. What would you know?”
“When I came to you, I was on a quest for an orc-pit. I want to continue that quest. Where is it, and what can you tell me of it?”
The Matriarch was silent for a long moment.
“Do you know why my home has two large windows, positioned opposite from each other, Iliar?”
Iliar had never considered there might be a significance. He had just assumed, living next to the tanner like they did, that any breeze to cut the stench was welcome.
He shook his head.
“It is to honor the two Gods of the world: Life, and Death. Both are necessary in a house of wisdom, for the right path can take you bumping up against either one. Both are welcome in here.
“If you seek the orc-pit, I fear you will become acquainted with Death. And sooner than you would like.”
Iliar shook his head.
“I don’t fear death. Not after the things I’ve seen.”
Images of lightless oar decks, of the oar digging into his palm while his back ached and he prayed for even a morsel of sunlight, flashed into his mind. He dig his fingers into the hard oak of the chair, keeping himself there.
He had escaped, he reminded himself forcibly. The ship had gone down with all hands, and those two slavers as well. He was never going back.
He wrenched his attention back to the Matriarch. As though she could see the struggle on his face, she waited until he was with her again to continue speaking.
“No, Iliar, I don’t think you do. And I’m sorry for what you’ve seen, though that courage could make you great one day. But it is not your own death that I speak of.”
Her eyes pierced him, black even in the shadows.
“Do you know why our warriors never hunt the orc-pit? We have the hunters to slay them, even if our village would be grievously wounded in the process. And they are a stain on our honor. Gamblers and thieves and murderers.
“Many say the world would be better if they were dead. So why do we not kill them?”
Iliar considered, then shook his head. He didn’t know.
The Matriarch’s eyes bored into him like steel.
“It is because they are our brothers, and to a lesser extent our sisters. And it is no small thing to slay your sibling, even when they deserve it. Even when some voices say they need it, for the good of us all.
“You are an orc now, by honor if not by blood. You are one of us. You have eaten our food, have slept beneath my roof, have trained with our warriors. Are you so willing to kill your brothers and sisters?”
Iliar considered. It wasn’t a trick question, he knew. That sort of thing was for humans, not orcs. Orcs were upright and honest, and when an orc said a thing you knew they meant it. But still. The Matriarch had asked a weighty question, and he owed her the honor of deliberating on it.
He thought about the orcs he had trained with, thought about their good-natured jokes and the hunt leader’s bellowing laugh when Iliar landed a blow on his skull and his triumph turned to horror when it didn’t seem to affect the leader. Thought about eating with the leader six days ago, when he had been invited to the Matriarch’s home, and watching him chew through six servings of black bread and thank the Matriarch for such a delicious meal.
He thought about the Matriarch’s sons, and how they had adopted him as one of their own. Thought about the Matriarch herself, and how she smiled down at him with the warmth and love of a mother.
Thought about the Matriarch’s use of words. What if some orcs in the orc pit were truly brothers and sisters of the orcs he had grown so fond of? What if he faced down an orc with the same blunt face and roaring laugh as the hunt leader, or the sister of the Matriarch? Could he kill them?
Then he thought about Rorin. About how Rorin had killed a footpad in the night, and saved Rachel’s life. About how Rorin had told him that some men were like mad dogs–they needed to be put down, for the good of those around them. He didn’t like it, but he did it.
Rorin had never told Iiar to follow in his footsteps, had never trained him with weapons or in how to stalk a footpad and get between them and their target. But he hadn’t needed to. Iliar had known since he was old enough to walk that he wanted to be like Rorin.
And then Iliar thought about the sorcerers who had killed Rorin, had used magic to suck away his life somehow. And in a flash of rage, Iliar realized that he blamed whoever the black-cloaked men had met before Rorin, whoever hadn’t killed them. Because if someone had killed the pair of them, then Iliar would still have a father.
Iliar dug his fingers into the hard wood of the chair again, rage thundering inside him. Pulsing at the edges of his eyes, red-hot.
But good decisions weren’t made from rage. The Matriarch had told him that, and he had watched her tell it to other orcs time and time again. This decision, to set him on a brand new path that might end with murder, shouldn’t be made in anger.
Iliar took a great gulp of the warm air in the kitchen, then another. And he thought about the straw-haired man he had saved.
He thought about Gan’ash’s words: “I’ll take it out of your woman’s hide.” Thought about her screaming as Gan’ash cut her open, all because the man she’d married couldn’t pay a few gold coins.
And Iliar knew.
He raised his eyes and met the Matriarch’s, and he nodded.
She regarded him over her thick steepled fingers, weighing him. Then she nodded too.
“So be it. You have made your choice, and I respect it. I will tell you what I know of the orc-pits.”
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