Midnight RPG - Chapter 32.654

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The ceremony is brief and understated. A pyre has been assembled in the husk of a partially-burned hut near the edge of town, built from wood and thatch scavenged from other, more thoroughly burned buildings. The three boys lie at the pinnacle, wrapped in shrouds of coarse sackcloth. Perhaps forty of the villagers stand around the base of the pyre, speaking occasionally in low voices. Finally, just as the sun slips below the crown of the woods, a tall and bearded man approaches from the village, bearing a lit torch. He seems smaller than he was a day ago, but he knows that his people look to him for leadership, and he will not let them down.

The orc sits on a broken cart perhaps fifty yards away, watching them. He does not know if their human eyes can pick him out in the growing twilight, but they do not seem to mind or acknowledge his presence. Durgaz is not familiar with the funerary rites of humans. There is some ceremony involved, as there is with the elves, but he does not know what; or, when all is said and done, why. The boys' spirits have fled; they are not lying atop the pyre. They cannot hear what their parents and loved ones have gathered to say. They have gone on to wherever human spirits go, and if they return, it will make no difference what was said of them while they lay still.

The man speaks, for a few minutes, his words inaudible to those not standing nearby. His voice becomes choked, but he straightens as he looks around him, at his people. Another man puts his hand on the man's shoulder.

The other village was not like this. It was larger; it sat on a hill, near a trade road. Perhaps three days' march from Zorgetch. They were under control. They paid their tributes on time. Or so it was believed, until the day one of the horses taken as tribute was found to be sporting new horseshoes.

The orcs returned in a fury. Two horses they encountered in a field outside of town were slaughtered and examined; they, too, sported fresh shoes. They also killed the plowman behind the horses, but not before beating out of him the secret of who had shoed them. His name was Baloin; he had found an old smithy in the hills. He had shoed horses, repaired their farming tools. Had he made weapons? The plowman did not know. They impaled him on his plow and left him to bleed as the afternoon turned to dusk.

Now the tall man is leading his fellows in a prayer; to whom, Durgaz cannot imagine. There are no gods that hear the prayers of wretched humans such as these. They stand in a circle around the pyre, their hands clasped, and they bow their heads. Finally, the tall man pulls an object on a cord from around his neck. He clutches it in his fist, as if trying to squeeze something from it, puts it to his forehead and closes his eyes. Finally, he places it atop the pyre, and steps backward as he puts his torch to the structure's base.

They reached the village minutes later, scattering mangy dogs and thin children before them. They learned the location of Baloin's home from a toothless beggar who lay moaning by the town well, his legs too mangled to stand. Then Naarghash lifted the spindly creature by his neck and threw him down the well. They heard him strike the bottom, but he did not moan or cry out after that.

Baloin was at home with his two sons, at supper: a hard chunk of bread and a scrawny chicken. The orcs dragged all three of them from their house. They took them to the center of town and forced them to their knees. Baloin was a strong man, but he broke easily. He admitted that he had been using the smithy. He told them where it was. He had not made any weapons, he swore. He would never touch it again if they let him go. Just let his children go.

Durgaz looks at the man. He looks back at his orcs. He takes a crossbow from his back and points it at Beloin. Because this is Beloin's first mistake, he says, he will let him go. He will let Beloin go, and one of his sons. The other must die. Beloin must choose which one.

The crowd stands silently as the flames creep up the side of the pyre, then engulf it completely in a pillar of sparks and fire. They stand there, a row of small shadows against a mighty orange blaze. The fire burns on; as time passes, the figures begin to peel away and slowly wander back to the village. The last five stay longer than the rest, but one pair and then another finally drift away, leaving the tall man alone by the dying fire. Finally, he too turns and walks back toward the village.

Beloin begs. Take him, he says. But Durgaz will have none of it. Choose now, he says, or I will kill them both. Beloin bows his head, shuts his eyes. He looks up. He points at one of his sons. Him, he whispers hoarsely. Take him. Durgaz cocks his crossbow and puts a bolt through the head of the other boy. He crumples in a pool of blood. The villagers scream. Beloin does not look up again.

Then he leans down, speaking slowly in Erenlander so that the boy can understand. Your father gave you up, he says. Your father would have let us kill you. But no. We have taken his favorite son, and left you behind.

He turns to his orcs. We are done here, he says. Saakaf strikes Beloin with the butt of his vardatch; the big man falls and does not move.

They turn and depart, the townspeople fleeing before them.

They find the smithy and burn it. What they can salvage of the forge and anvil, they take with them. They have done well here. Any man present that night will think twice before he breaks the law. Beloin will make no more horseshoes. A boy will grow up knowing that his father was willing to bargain away his life for another's. They have sown this field with fear and hate and distrust, so that nothing more dangerous will grow there.

Durgaz sits on the cart until the last embers of the pyre fade. It is late at night, the stars obscured by clouds as well as pyre-smoke, but the orc does not notice. The last of the humans have been gone for several hours when he approaches the pyre, now a silent pit of white ashes.

He stands silently for many minutes. Then he pulls a knife from his belt and, in a single motion, drives it into his chest. It sinks several inches before striking the bone that protects the vitals. He twists the knife. Pulls it out. Drives it in again, in a second spot. Twist. Pull. Stab, for a third time. Twist. Pull.

He pauses. The pain is intense. Rivulets of blood pour down his chest, steaming in the cold night air. Then he brings the knife down once more, a fourth time. Twists. Pulls.

He drops the dagger on the ground, stumbles, drops to his knees. Something is visible in the ash-pile before him; a small clay amulet, its hide cord burned away. The orc thrusts his arm into the pile of white-hot ash, grabs the object, and presses it to his chest ... once, twice, thrice and again, sealing his wounds with fire. He squeezes it as he saw the tall man do, then throws it back into the pile.

His hand burns from the hot clay. The blood is no longer flowing, and the sharp pain in his chest has been replaced by something else; a series of dull aches. One for each boy that he could not save. One for the boy who could not be saved from him.

But these wounds will heal. The others ... the tall man, the four figures he did not see, Beloin the blacksmith ... their wounds will not.

The orc sits in the dark, before the pile of ash, watching as it cools and goes dark.
When the sun comes up, he has gone.