Though most see the winter as a cold, dead time, filled with snow and ice and wind and cold, for Oskar and Alessia it passed them by in warmth and softness. They had hit upon something of a routine--he, going out on another hunt, and she asking permission (and usually receiving it) to go off to Totten again with Taria. Once or twice, they even made it there.
But long nights and warm kisses quickly grow repetitive to all those but they doing the kissing, passing the nights. And so, we will for the nonce leave Oskar and Alessia where they lay, and turn to a figure rather unlike either of them.
Folk gave the hoary old cripple a wide berth as he made his sloping way through the streets of Druvenlode. Mothers unconsciously put themselves between him and their children at his drawing near. Dogs whimpered or snarled. Song died at a glance from his cruel eyes.
Harsk was whip-thin, twisted strangely around his right leg, which he favored, though it didn't slow his pace at all--he still moved with the speed of a man half his age,a point of savage, self-destructive pride for him.
Grey strings of hair spilt from beneath a black hood, and his a face like those carved from rock by the slow artistry of wind and rain. A thin, flabby tongue flitted through small, fox-like teeth with effort. That limp wasn't just for show.
Some said he hadn't come back from the wars quite right, that somewhere across Wildemount he’d left a piece of himself behind. Others figured he was just a cruel dark old man by his very nature. There were even, he knew it, whispers of darker doings in the forests, devil worship and sacrifices. Let them talk of such things. Harsk couldn't care less. He lived alone and saw nobody--but there were few in Druvenlode with his skill with a bow, and none with his skill at trailcraft. Those who needed such skills were willing to overlook other aspects of the man.
Today was one of those rare days when he came in to town, and he had business with the stalwart Captain Faltus. Harsk had no taste for the man, not after two decades in service to Bertrand’s army. If Harsk his way, he'd learn the hard way how his virtuous lady love was being ploughed by an orc.
But as it was, there was money to be made in watching her and her friend as they “went to Totten". Harsk might be a bitter bastard of a cripple, but by all the gods Berty had outlawed, he'd not be a pauper too.
He hobbled his way up to the barracks. Two men stood by the door and nodded to him as he worked his way up the steps; only those gave him trouble. “Alright, Harsk", one said, bored. “How’s it?”
“Wotcher, lads. The Cap in this fine day?” He smiled blackly.
“Reckon, yeah. G’won in.”
The Druvenlode barracks wasn't large, and Faltus wasn't hard to find. But Harsk did have to go up stairs again, and that made him powerfully angry. That anger made him say something he'd later wish he hadn't.
“Harsk. They're leaving again tomorrow.” Faltus didn't mince words, at least. “I expect you to be shadowing them.”
“And my payment? Don't work for free, do I, your lordshipfulness.”
Faltus made a small noise, then flicked a pouch out toward Harsk, who caught it deftly. “As always, they're not to know you're there. Understood?”
Harsk laughed, low and savage, like the hinges of a coffin creaking. “Mate, I don't think she's for watching me, like.”
Faltus had turned. Now he snapped around, eyes thin to dagger slits. “What's that supposed to mean, cripple?”
The fire flared behind Harsk’s eyes for a heartbeat, but it died as he realized what he was doing--about to slaughter his golden goose. He shrank, practicing the unctuousness that men like Faltus often expected from men like Harsk. “Nothing of it, Cap, nothing of it, no.” He smiled with no sincerity whatsoever. “Just a cracked old man, like.”
Faltus’ nostrils flared briefly. “Just follow them. The same rate.”
“Ah, Cap, it's cold out, y’know. Winter’s come through. With m’leg…” He tapped his hip. “Mightn’t ye see her way to a bit more, that I’n get me a thicker cloak, like?”
He laughed. Then stopped. “Don't push your luck, Harsk.”
The next day, they walked, Taria and Alessia, astride their horses, and behind them, cold and aching in the leg, came Harsk.
The trip passed much as the others had, with meeting their green friend, and going like rabbits. But all through it, Harsk’s mind was whirling. He had no grudge against the young lovers, and on the whole probably liked them better than the Captain, but the Captain was the one giving him coin. And he knew too that as foolish as Faltus was, he wasn't stupid either. He was going to piece things together sooner or later. So the question now was: which side of the fence did he want to be on?
Somewhere in the mountains, Garuk was thinking along similar lines. What was Osakr doing, with all these trips out hunting? The tribe wasn't complaining--he alone was pulling in as much meat as any three of the other hunters. They were finally starting to come around to him. That made his mother happy enough, but that in itself was suspicious enough.
Add to that his newfound… well, orcishness, for lack of a better term. He now suffered no insult, brooked broke no challenge to his power. The tribe even spoke orcish to him now. Did he have designs for Garuk’s leadership? Or worse, had he sold out the tribe, gone civilized?
These were questions that needed answers. So when all was quiet, when Oskar had left, Garuk quietly slipped forth from the camp. He carried nothing but his weapons, and so he moved as quickly and quietly as the younger (and stronger, as well? he wondered) hunter. He would find out what had caused this sudden surge of orcishness, or at the least he would have it out with Oskar. There would be a reckoning now. A tribe could only have on chief.
He saw much of what Harsk saw. Enough to make him question. Enough to answer those questions in himself. But he saw something, as well, that the others didn't see. He saw Harsk.
He crept around Oskar’s camp, quiet beyond his years, blade in hand, a wicked cleaving thing. Spies, human spies from the human town. To match Oskar's human blood, of course. He would be dealt with soon enough, but his spy, his scout. He would go tonight. Only an old cripple. He was yards away now, and it had been a long time since he'd killed a human but he reckoned he'd still remember how to do it--
A twig snapped. Harsk turned with a quickness that caught Garuk out, and in a flash he had a blade in his own hand. But the orc was still in the advantage, and he surged forward like a dam-break. The cutter in his hand came up, and down in a savage arc.
Harsk moved, rolling to the side, his limp suddenly forgotten. Garuk’s blade came down in the tree behind which the old human had been hiding, leaving a deep wedge and a dull thunk. He slid his own blade, a thick scout's knife, across the orc’s treetrunk of a leg. Deep blood came forth.
Garuk wheeled right, following Harsk, swinging a brutal kick at the diving human. It met flesh, catching him in the hip and almost flipping the man around entirely. On instinct, neither man had yet made a sound, but Harsk's breath left him then, rushing out in a ragged gasp.
Garuk dropped a knee on the shoulder which held the knife, and the fingers involuntarily loosened. Harsk’s other hand tightened in the dirt, bringing up a hunk of wet, cold earth and flinging it into the orc’s face. He followed it with a desperate--though weak--knee to Garuk’s side, anything to get him off--but it was like kneeing an oak tree. Harsk was a scout, deadly with a bow, but Garuk was a warrior.
Garuk's other boot came up, pinning down Harsk's free hand. He chuckled, and quietly spoke. “I'll not let you and them destroy us, human. But you fight with more honor than him.”
The chopper came up, inexorably.
Garuk went to the side as a green missile slammed into his side, and Oskar was atop him, fists raining down. “Alessia, go! Take him! Get back!”
Alessia and Taria were helping Harsk up. In most circumstances, they wouldn't have even considered touching him, and he wouldn't have accepted their help. But in light of the alternative, two angry orcs…
Garuk began to rise, but Oskar's fist thudded into his face. The grip on his blade loosened. Another punch broke it. He kept punching, knowing he was fighting for his life now. He'd made his decision, sided with the humans, as far as Garuk was concerned, and was just another enemy. He wouldn't stop until Garuk was still.
He knelt there. Garuk beneath him was semi-conscious, eyes blank. Oskar took the blade and stood, fetching a length of rope from his camp. He would bind Oskar, and he would return him to his tribe. Brutal though he may have been, he was still Oskar's chief. And then he would leave with Alessia, and let come what may.