We had left for the land of Alaxi the next day. The significance of our mission proved itself by the journey there. Tales of my might had apparently spread far, as the route to Nakovan took us through the borders another country. We had been journeying for a week, and the man steering the cart assured us that we were nearly there. The sun had just hid itself under the horizon for the eighth time since we had left Ijatia, and we now traveled by only three dim lamps and the light of the stars. Our convoy of three carts made its way along a seemingly endless and hypnotically straight path of dirt. For the last few hours, we had been passing through barren fields, containing only the occasional tree and an endless sea of tall grass. I had, however, noticed the cultural diffusion in the towns that we had passed through before.
Ijatian structures were mostly constructed from wood and stone. They were usually straight and symmetrical, sporting sharp corners and thick, tall walls. As we passed through the foreign towns and cities, however, the structures began to slowly deviate from that standard. Those who lived some few hundred kilometres away from our city had very similar structures to ours, except they might sport some curved corners, or they may have been shorter, stubbier versions of the Ijatian style. As we traveled further, the structures began to adopt stranger and more foreign shapes. The structures here all used obtuse, ovular bricks and had softer, round shapes. Doorways and rooves were constructed with vibrantly dyed clay. This was the first time that I had been away from my own country, and the strangeness of this place was delightful. The people of Alaxi spoke in strange tongues that I did not understand, but their weird words and sounds seemed mundane to them. Here, I would surely be considered even more foreign and misplaced than before.
The cart rose slightly with a sudden thump and the hooves of the horses pulling it began to clap against the cobblestone ground. We had entered settled territory, and the strange, curvy structures began to appear on the horizon.
“This is Nakovan.” The man leading the convoy spoke loudly. “It’s a big town, but most people stay here because it’s close to the big city, Hoffgorod. I don’t know if you can speak to many people here; most only speak Seltsi. In Hoffgorod, it shouldn’t be a problem. Merchants, tourists, priests, and scholars come from all over to experience the city; if you are ever lost, someone who speaks Ijatian within ten feet of you, day or night.” There was no response, as everyone aboard was exhausted from the long travel. The man fell silent afterward.
We disembarked in front of a long, round structure. The building was short but it was large and deep. The structure sported bright Alaxian clay shingles and there was a large banner hung next to the door with a sun on it, perhaps to indicate that the place was an inn. We opened the door, and immediately laughter and noise poured out. Behind us, the carts carrying Martelli and his servicemen pulled away in silence.
Upon entering the inn, it was clear that the structure also doubled as a tavern. A long, wooden bar was overflowing with drunken men, hunched over the table and trying desperately to obtain more liquor and attention from the scantily clad women serving drinks. Dominic’s face snapped from exhaustion into a scowl as the aroma of vomit and beer filled our noses.
“Well. It is clear that Martelli did not want to provide us with board, then.” He spoke aloud, but not necessarily to me. “He knows very well that I would kiss The Dark One before I spend ten months in this farmhouse.” He sighed to himself, and then faced me. “We will have to stay here for at least one night. I will see if I can get us a better accommodation in the morning.” I nodded. Dominic led me to another counter where a woman stood. Her dress looked more refined than that of the barmaids, but that was not a high bar to surpass.
“My name is Dominic. We are to spend the night here.” Dominic spoke with a monotonous expression. He was frustrated, but he knew that the woman at the counter was not the one at fault.
“Of course, Sir Dominic, the Ijatian speaking one. There’s a note here, you’re the one with the ogre.” She spoke softly and with an inhumanly polite tone. Dominic paused for a moment.
“An orc, not an ogre.” He brought his hand to cover some of his face.
“I guess I’m glad to hear that.” She smiled politely and signed something in a book. “I’ll show you to your rooms.” She again flashed that political smile of hers and walked around the counter. “You’re lucky I’m an Ijatian, too! Not many others here in Nakovan speak Ijatian properly, but it’s a pretty common language in the cities. A lot of people can make basic sentences. A lot of speakers are staying here from the big city for Turnover.” Dominic gave an acknowledging grunt and a small shrug, anxious to simply get to his room. As she led us there, one of the drunken men put his hand on my arm.
“You are animal!” He spoke crudely and slowly. I could not tell whether his sloppy Ijatian was from the drunkenness or a lack of familiarity with the language, but it was probably both. “We don’t like you. We don’t like your kind in Nakovan, you go.”
I looked at Martelli, unsure how to handle the aggression. It seemed unwarranted, as I had done nothing to provoke the man, and it also seemed strange because of the massive size difference between him and myself. Compared to most men, this one included, I stood at almost one and a half times their size. I had to slouch deeply to fit into human doorways. A single swing of my arm could have batted the man across the room. His drunken bravado was surely what gave him enough stupidity and courage to threaten me.
“Do not attack him.” Martelli spoke forcefully, as he always did when commanding me. In response, I turned my back to the man. “Do not attack anyone in town, we did not come here for that. The last thing that we want is to earn a reputation as foreign murderers.”
“Come to me, stupid ogre.” The drunken man spat more insults at my back. “I will hurt you!” The barmaid touched his shoulder from behind, prompting him to turn around.
“Dmitri,” She called him by name and spoke softly to the man in his own tongue, perking her breasts toward his face. She led him back to the bar for another drink, shouting what her cadence suggested was a brief apology in our direction.
“He comes here often; Dmitri is a nice man when he’s not drunk.” The innkeeper spoke again, smiling nervously. “I’m sure he’ll apologize if he remembers, let’s just get you gentlemen rested for the night, please?”
“Yes, we should do that. I am exhausted and the sun will rise soon. I hope that the rooms are nicer than this tavern.” Dominic spoke with increasing frustration. “And your patrons. I can already tell this will be delightful.”
She led us wordlessly down a long hallway that jutted out from the tavern’s rear. In fact, the hallway was surprisingly long. We were separated from the tavern by three pairs of doors. Presumably, beyond each set of doors were more expensive rooms. She led us to the far end, handing me and Dominic each a key. Dominic paid the woman, and she made her exit.
“Goodnight, Mastiff.” He went into his room and closed the door behind him. I went into mine, and found it to be vastly superior to my previous sleeping quarters. The bed was large and comfortable; It was not stuffed with mere straw and grass like my previous one, but instead felt stuffed with down feathers. The room had a small counter and a pit for a fire, but no matches or flint. I imagined that someone needed explicit permission for the tools to light a fire, so as not to set the entire inn ablaze. The room had a small rug and, perhaps what intrigued me most, a mirror on the wall. I approached it. I did not often get opportunities to look in a mirror. My quarters simply did not have one, and given my career, I did not often need one. I stood in front of it and gazed at my own appearance.
It was strange to see myself. I only ever had opportunities to see humans, and for that reason I often imagined myself looking the same. Looking into a mirror broke that strange mental image of a small, green man. I was not a human. To say that I looked the same as men would be as incorrect as it would be accurate. I had the same body shape that men did: two arms and two legs, my head rested above my shoulders and my entire body functioned in a very similar manner. The differences were also quite apparent, however. The most obvious of these differences was my skin. Most men referred to my skin as a ‘hide’. It was thicker, leathery and a rich shade of olive green that appeared nearly brown.
My face was deeper and wider than a human, perhaps more akin to a gorilla. My jaw extended about an inch further than my forehead. My eyes were a murky yellow, compared to the humans’ white eyes, and my thick brow hung over them like an awning. Unlike men who had colourful shades of blue, brown, and green irises, I instead had gigantic pupils, occupying almost the entirety of my sclera. My ears were pointed at the top, and moved slightly when reacting to noise, a marked feature of my head along with my nose that was flat with wide, open nostrils. A pair of tusks, severely exaggerated canine teeth, protruded from the bottom of my mouth. Whenever I peered into a mirror, I was inclined to run my fingers along those tusks, perhaps because they were what separated my face most from men and what blatantly exposed me as a beast.
My hair was similar to that of men, but it did not grow equally atop my head as it did for humans in their youth. My hair was instead concentrated on the crown of my head, and formed naturally into dreadlocks that I wore in a ponytail. Cutting or shaving this hair was not much of an option; it was about the thickness of a noodle and grew back rapidly.
I took a step back; my hulking frame barely fit into the mirror. My body was monstrous compared to that of a man, with muscles and veins pressing against my leathery hide as if about to burst. I slowly spun around in front of the mirror, criticizing and analyzing my appearance, but interest in the endeavour did not last long. I, too, was frustratingly tired and wanted to sleep. I looked forward to resting in a much nicer bed than usual.
The bed was of such greater quality than my old quarters, and especially the rickety wooden cart, that I had not even noticed myself falling asleep. Time had passed despite my ignorance and sunlight was already pouring through the window and onto my face. I rose up suddenly, taken aback momentarily by the foreign room. As consciousness flooded back over my body, I stood once more to face the mirror. I ran my fingers across the simple cloth tunic that I usually wore; I did not have any other clothing options. The tunic was dark brown with scarlet trims, bearing Dominic’s family crest on the back. There was little grooming to do, and when I was satisfied that my clothing wasn’t wrinkled, I walked out into the hall.
I waited patiently by Dominic’s door for about an hour before he left his room, wearing fresh garments.
“Good morning, Mastiff.”
“Good morning, my lord.”
We walked quietly to the tavern, where we ate chicken and bread. Dominic ordered a liqueur but felt that it was too sweet and strong for the morning, so I drank it instead. Compared to yesterday, the tavern was now eerily empty and quiet. Only the quiet trickle of a petite woman filling bottles of honey mead could be heard. When Dominic and I had finished we once again rose and he led me to a place outside where a caravan was already waiting. Farmers and lowly merchants walked about Nakovan in the early morning and shot nasty stares and foreign curses in my direction.
Verbal abuse did little to enrage me unless I was otherwise directed by Dominic. Being an orc, whatever that meant, made me a target for adults to throw words and children to throw stones. The stones did little to hurt me because of my thick skin, and perhaps the same could be said for the cussing. The constant barrage of teasing was simply part of being an orc, and Dominic paid no attention to the people insulting his Mastiff. I would not admit it, but it made me very uncomfortable. Though I was a pariah in my hometown, the Ijatians had long since run dry on insults and the children had grown bored of their foolishness. In Nakovan, I was fresh meat. Doing my best to shrug off my insecurities, I entered into the caravan behind my lord.
The man steering the buggy said something to me, but I did not understand it. Saying something in the Seltsi language, Dominic mentioned my fluency only in Ijatian.
“Big, you are big.” The man spoke to me again. I nodded. “My horse, I hope can lug you.” He laughed and turned forward. Dominic and I leaned back and tried to enjoy the ride. The cart shook as it stumbled over the cobblestone road. Dominic looked unsatisfied with Alaxi thus far, but briefly commented he was glad to be heading out to Hoffgorod now. It was very beautiful, he had heard.
And he had heard correctly. Nakovan had buildings which I considered to be short, ugly, and shoddy, but the structures in Hoffgorod towered to three, sometimes four levels. The obtuse oval bricks used by most of the houses throughout the rest of Alaxi were not present. Instead, the buildings were constructed with straight, symmetrical bricks. They bore a semblance to Ijatian buildings which pleased my senses. The buildings had triangular rooves which were fitted with a brass coating at their highest point. The streets were filled with a constant murmuring of friends and lovers as they strolled down the boulevards, and also of the men who were trying to sell things to them. Every corner of the city seemed to be another bazaar, emulating the experience of a constant fair. Hoffgorod seemed to breathe and have its own pulse; simply being there brought a smile to Dominic’s face. I, too, was excited to be there.
The loudness of the streets and the foreign tongues which filled the air meant that I could not hear anybody who was not close, and likely could not even understand them if they were. The crowdedness of the city, in that manner, provided a quaint isolation. I enjoyed it, and felt at home for the first time since Dominic and I had left Ijatia. When we disembarked from the buggy, Dominic and I walked into Martelli’s manor with dumb smiles on our faces.
Martelli’s manor was very different from Dominic’s. Dominic had placed his manor far from society, overlooking only farmland and remaining in complete silence and solace. Martelli lived instead in an enormous stone home which overlooked the city streets of Hoffgorod. Standing about as large as an entire block of other houses, Martelli’s home was full of giant rooms and courtyards. The manor was sheltered from the streets by thick walls. Massive apertures toward the top of the walls let sunlight shine onto glimmering marble tiles which set the structure aglow like the heavens. Martelli’s home was the most beautiful place that I had ever laid eyes on.
The moment we arrived, Dominic snapped back into his previous frustration and yelled at Martelli for providing him with such subpar accommodations. Martelli argued back that he did not provide anything; he simply offered to discount Dominic’s stay should he choose to stay at the Nakovan inn. The screaming match did not last long, however, and the two men were holding each other and laughing like childhood friends in what seemed like a few minutes.
“Come with me, orc.” Martelli beckoned for me to another room, and I followed. Dominic walked one or two paces behind me, which was very odd to me, but I supposed that Martelli was going to address me directly. He sat me down. “I will be brief about this. There will be more exact instructions at each particular stage of your campaign, but I am going to inform you of your larger mission is here. Do you understand?”
“Good. There is a group of men who refer to themselves as “Peliks”. Simply stated, they occupy our land. Alaxi is growing and becoming more powerful, and our farms need to expand. However, when we try to construct farms or streets any further east, these “Pelik” men swarm and kill our citizens. We cannot mobilize the military in this case: the Peliks are not civilized like the Alaxians or the Ijatians. They are nomadic. Do you know what nomadic means?”
“It means that they do not have cities as we do. They move, constantly. They have no cities that we can siege or governments with which we can establish treaties. They simply run around and kill civilized men like Dominic, myself, or the people of Alaxi. The Peliks are bad people and they need to be killed. Because a military campaign would be a massive effort, and most likely an unsuccessful one, I want for you to assassinate specific leaders in their groups. If we can destroy their structure of power and lower their morale then we can handle them with local militias. That way, we can expand safely, and no more innocent men will die. Will you help us?”
“Good. I have employed an artist to paint a rendition of what these men look like.” Martelli whistled down the hall, and a man appeared holding a thick piece of animal skin bound into a tight roll. Martelli unraveled it and revealed its contents to me.
The man depicted in the painting looked very strange compared to the men I had seen in the past. His skin was dark, almost so dark that I could not see his facial features. He wore a headdress that was decorated with bright paint and colourful feathers. He had no shirt on, instead bearing a long necklace strung with various metals and bones. He carried a large full body shield constructed of wooden planks. On the shield was a crudely painted face that was horribly disproportionat;.the mouth of the depicted creature covered the entire lower half of the shield and its massive, bright eyes filled the rest. The man wore cloth armour from his waist down. His feet and ankles were adorned with tightly bound wraps. The man proudly carried a spear.
“See these men? They are very different than the ones you fight for and owe your life to. They do not live in family units like we do. They are barbarians. They do not all look exactly like this man, but they do have a striking similarity. The higher ranked men are designated by their clothing. Simply put, the more colourful that their armour and headdresses are, the higher societal rank that they hold. They do not have real military ranks like us, and none of these men live peacefully in Alaxian towns. They are all targets to be killed. They use spears, much unlike the swords that you will see your fellow Ijatians use. Their weapons and fighting forms are primitive, so you must be careful. They are adept at hiding in wooded areas and tall grass, ambushing targets like cowards. They do not have the force needed to take you and your men head on, but that does not mean that they are not violent, twisted, and crafty. You must use the utmost caution when hunting them. Can you do this?”
“Then it is settled. Tomorrow you shall embark on your first hunt. Go now. Return in one hour, I must speak to Dominic alone.”
“Yes, my Duke.” Without hesitation, I stood up and walked away. Dominic took the chair which I was seated on. As I left the room, I overheard some final words.
“I am excited to begin our job.” Dominic spoke with a friendly tone. “But, if you disrespect me in front of my orc like that again, I will have to sick him on you, Martelli.”