We sat in silence, watching as the sun slowly began to peek over the horizon. There was a frosty chill lingering from the night, but the caress of the early morning rays began to warm our skin. The inaugural hunt was about to commence. Our first target was a man named Otar Bengal. He was not of great political importance to the Peliks, but Martelli felt that Otar made the perfect flame to snuff first. Otar was the Pelik equivalent of a brigadier; he led a small group of warriors who were known for being the most active in thwarting Alaxian expansion attempts. As this was our first attack, the assassination would be a surprise assault. With no prior warning or declaration of war, Otar would be a relatively easy target. Martelli’s hopes were that the death of Otar would demoralize the Pelik warriors for long enough to set up a small Alaxian encampment, therefore allowing him to annex a decent plot of land and erect a forward command post.
Five men had been sent to accompany me for the assassination. To avoid being seen, we shrouded ourselves by hiding in a field of tall grass. Stealthy use of terrain and cover was generally considered to be a Pelik tactic, and it was probable that the grass had been allowed to grow to such lengths intentionally. The field surrounded a small Pelik village, about four hundred meters away, where Otar supposedly lived. I imagined that, had the Peliks been expecting our arrival, their warriors would be hiding in much the same manner that we were now. We surveyed the small town intently, searching for any signs of movement. Early morning stirs and clatters began to ring out from the nearby houses.
Pelik structures were all very small, and did not display the same architectural prowess that Alaxian or Ijatian structures did. They were either circular, or rectangular and long. They were all constructed from wood, grass, mud, and other immediately available materials that never appeared to be refined in any way. Small openings in the walls all faced toward the morning sun, filling the Pelik houses with the same golden warmth that now poured over my body. A door opened in the distance, and my men readied themselves for attack. I held out my hand, spreading it flat with my palm facing toward the ground. The symbol meant to cease any movement. On my command, the men sat down once more.
It was admittedly a thrill to command a unit. Much of my life was sedentary. Most often, my time was occupied doing menial chores for Dominic or exercising to maintain my strength. During those times, I did not have much authority and I thus considered those parts of my life to be unimportant. When in battle, however, my entire existence ascended into a euphoric experience; a domain in which I was not only an authority but a master. It seemed that there was no man who could conquer me in glorious combat, and thus I made it my purpose.
My gigantic pupils narrowed to about half of their normal size as I spotted movement from one of the houses. A door swung open, and a woman had stepped out. She was tall and slender. She led two children by holding their hands as they made their way to a larger structure within the hamlet. Shortly after them, holding a staff, was a man. The man was wearing headgear, but it was not as vibrant as Martelli had led me to believe it would have been. I considered that this man might have been low-ranking in their society, and decided to wait and try to collect more information before acting. More men emerged from their huts, always exiting after their women and children. As the people made their way into the large rectangular hall, I narrowed my potential targets down to two men. I was not certain which of them was Otar, but I decided that I could not wait any longer to attack. Most of the hamlet’s men had contained themselves in the village’s central building, and the two men that I suspected might have been Otar were vulnerable and exposed, as it seemed that they were poised to enter the hall last. I directed my men to approach the first suspect unseen and ambush him as he tried to enter the doorway, and I would then use the chaos to charge the second suspect unhindered. We got into position, and as the first man approached the doorway, we charged.
My men were carrying blades with them and were able to make quick work of the unsuspecting and cornered man. I preferred to use my hands when going into battle; they offered the greatest dexterity and my thick hide made me formidable even against armed men. I approached the other man. He attempted to flee, but the village was spacious and my gigantic footsteps made me much faster than him on open terrain. I batted him to the ground with the back of my hand. He fell to the ground rolling and tried desperately to crawl away. Instead, I grabbed his ankle and pulled him back toward me. I looked him in the eyes.
“I want Otar!” I yelled at him, hoping to affirm his identity, but he simply stared at me, wide-eyed in fear. I grabbed his head and lifted him from the ground. His legs were now dangling about three feet above the ground. He could not see, but he kicked and punched in my direction. He could not muster enough power to hurt me, however. I turned to face the wall of a hut. I lifted the man high above me and brought his head down to smash it against the side of the building. His head crushed the side of the structure, leaving a massive red mark in its wake. I lifted him up again and brought him against the hard surface once more, caving in a large section of the muddy wall. I repeated the action until neither the wall nor his head were identifiable, at which point I dropped his carcass. My body felt extremely hot and I felt a shiver in my spine, exploding with the excitement of having drained the blood of my enemy. I turned to face the few remaining Otar loyalists that had emerged from the hall. The other villagers of the hamlet had long since fled during my scuffle with the suspect, and my unit stood watching my strength with awe. I let out a roar, and Otar’s remaining loyalists backed away slowly before turning and fleeing.
I let out a satisfied sigh and smiled as I turned to face my men once more. They had all lowered their heads as I faced them, and I took a moment to appreciate my dominance. I then waved my hand to signify “all clear”. They separated and began to search houses for plunder. I approached the body of the first man, who had been slain by my men. I searched the body for anything that might identify him as Otar. I had suspected this one because he wore the largest headdress, as Martelli had suggested. I was still unsure of which carcass belonged to Otar, as they both seemed so unremarkable in comparison to Martelli’s painting. I removed both of their headdresses and decided that I would bring the two of them back to Martelli. One of them was wearing a bright silver amulet and so I looted that as well. I surveyed the scene: it was one of utter victory. These Peliks had fled at my might, and they would not be the last.
Once I had collected the amulet and the headdresses, I clapped my hands twice to signal that my men must return to me at once. They did so. Though I was technically their commander, there was a stigmatized relationship between me and my men; I was generally not supposed to speak to them and instead communicated almost exclusively through gestures. When my men had assembled, I waved for us to retreat. The Peliks would return eventually and I had no intentions of waiting for reinforcements to arrive. We ducked into the grass and made our way back to Martelli’s manor swiftly.
It was an uneventful trip home. The men had gone their separate ways while I went to go meet Dominic and Martelli. Once I had arrived at the manor, I knocked on the door. My knock was answered by an elderly man in formal clothing. Rather than speaking to me, he simply nodded and closed the door once more. A few minutes later, the door swung open again to reveal Dominic.
“Did you eliminate your target?” He asked. I nodded. “Good. Come inside.”
Dominic walked back into the house and I followed him, keeping about five paces behind him. We navigated the hallways of Martelli’s home and found him seated at a table, eating alone. When we entered the room he glanced in our direction and asked if I had completed my task successfully. Dominic assured Martelli that it was so and I presented the headdresses. I handed them to Martelli and he inspected them.
Dominic turned to me and asked “Are you certain that one of these headdresses belonged to Otar?”
I stiffened up my posture and admitted that I did not. Dominic scowled, but Martelli seemed pleased. “Nonsense, Dominic.” Martelli said. “These headdresses seem right for a Pelik like Otar, and the fact that he returned two of them leads me to believe that he might have also killed another important target. Your orc did well.”
Dominic nodded in appreciation and turned to me. He spoke quietly: “Did you take anything else?”
“Yes, my lord.” I whispered in return.
“What did you take?”
“A necklace, Sir Dominic.”
Martelli seemed upset that Dominic and I were speaking quietly to one another, and the look on his face suggested that he wanted to know what we were saying. Dominic must have also sensed Martelli’s suspicion, as he instructed me to pawn it at Hoffgorod’s blacksmith quickly and quietly before turning to face Martelli again. “My friend Martelli,” he began “You have now seen firsthand how powerful my orc is. He has accomplished twice that of what you asked of him, and that was a showcase which I would consider sloppy.” Doing as Dominic asked of me, I headed for the door. “Perhaps you would consider further investments in my bounty hunting enterprise?”
I made haste on my way into Hoffgorod’s market, as Dominic did not like to be kept waiting. As I walked toward the city’s center, it became apparent to me that my memory of Hoffgorod’s layout was not as reliable as I had hoped. My previous contracts had all been in Ijatia, where I knew the geography well. Even the foreign criminals that I had pursued in the past were in Ijatia at the time of their capture, most often hidden somewhere in Ijatia’s lush forests. Hoffgorod proved to be difficult to navigate. Rather than a lush and fertile panorama like Ijatia, Hoffgorod was an ostentatious metropolis of stone and iron. The city was absolutely dazzling, and every street corner seemed to be calling for me to investigate it. Once I had entered the heart of the city, my caution about Dominic’s patience had faded and I lost myself in Hoffgorod’s beauty. A major aspect of Hoffgorod’s allure was how populated it was. While I had been somewhat concerned about entering the city alone, it seemed that the people in Hoffgorod were far too busy to worry about an orc in their streets–or perhaps they did not even care at all.
In somewhat of a daze, I wandered lazily about. There were no words to describe the freedom that I felt whilst bathed in the anonymity of city life. Music cascaded out of a nearby tavern with a melody that flowed like gentle molasses, overtaking my animalistic sense of self and replacing it wholly with gleeful tones that bounced about the inside of my skull. I walked in tune with the bard’s chorus and once I had wandered far enough away from the tavern that the merry tune became inaudible, I had become even more lost than I had been before. I stopped briefly to gaze at my surroundings but saw no landmarks to hint at my bearing. Desperate, my ears picked up the faint voice of a woman speaking in Ijatian. My eyes shot in her direction; she was a thin and fair young woman. Her skin was white, almost to a degree of pastiness, and her dark chestnut hair fell gently on her shoulders. She was adorned in clothes that humans would have described as fancy or elegant: clean, white, and flowing. Had I been in Ijatia, she was the type of woman that I would not likely have been permitted to speak to. However, the tantalizing freedom of Hoffgorod’s streets led me to be uncharacteristically candid and approach her.
I walked toward her and she clearly noticed my approach. Her eyes widened slightly as I came closer and she held herself with straighter posture than she had been using in her previous conversation. Men nearby also seemed to take notice, posturing themselves toward me. Once I had closed the distance between us, I spoke.
“I need the smith.” I said to her. Her countenance shifted from discomfort to an amused form of confusion.
“Is that how you introduce yourself to a lady?” She said.
“Yes.” I responded. She let out a small giggle and raised a hand toward the nearby men, a clear signal that they could rest at ease.
“Well, you certainly are bold then.” There was a short beat.
“I need the smith.” I reiterated, and again she let out a chuckle.
“Surely you jest?”
“No.” I said, unable to understand her amusement.
“This is the smith!” She claimed, pointing toward a sign. “It says BLACKSMITH right upon that sign. In Ijatian, too.”
Again, I was silent for a moment. “I am sorry. Orcs cannot read.” I stammered. Her eyebrows shot up at this statement, but I thought little of it. I stepped toward the blacksmith’s shop.
My dealing with the smith was simple and easy. He spoke some Ijatian but seemed unwilling to speak much to an orc. He did not question the origin of the strange necklaces and jewelry that I had brought to him. I simply informed him that “I sell these for Martelli” and that was the end of any real conversation. After a short inspection, he handed me a handsomely portioned bag of coins (the calculation of which I did not participate in) and asked me to send Martelli his regards. I nodded and left swiftly.
I swung the door open and took another brief glimpse about, as I still had no bearings. However, before I could consider anything significant, I was interrupted by the woman that I had spoken to earlier.
“What did you mean to imply when you said that orcs cannot read?” She approached and spoke to me as candidly as I had spoken to her. I turned to her and looked her in the eyes, but I did not know the words needed to elaborate. After another awkward pause, she spoke again. “Allow me to put it this way: orcs are very capable of reading.” She pointed a finger at me, “You do not know how to read.” Again, I was uncertain of how to respond. However, insults had been hurled at me in the past and I considered this no different. I did as Lord Dominic had previously instructed me to act after being insulted: cause no harm and leave. As I turned my back, I felt her thin, bony fingers on my forearm. I did not turn to face her again, but I did stop.
“Where are you going?” She asked me. “I meant no offense, I was simply stating the truth.”
I sighed and began to walk away. After I had traveled a few meters, she shouted behind me: “Do you want to learn how to read?” I stopped and slowly turned to face her. She smiled. “I assume you know not of who I am.” The convoluted way she spoke confused me. “I am Elisabetta, daughter of Rinaldo Hernan Hidalgo.”
Again, I had no valid response.
She smiled. “The man from whom you have procured your pittance?”
“The smith, you buffoon! I am his daughter! And I am certain that he has just played you for a fool. Follow.”
I still had little idea of what she said, but her presence suggested authority and I obeyed her command. Walking a few paces behind her, we entered the blacksmith’s shop once more.
She swiftly removed the bag of coins from my hand–something that would never have occurred if I hadn’t allowed it, as suggested by the three-fold difference in the size of our hands. She peered into it briefly and then immediately allowed it to drop to the floor. She spoke to the smith in a foreign tongue, presumably about the amount of money that I had been given. I knew not what they said, but it quickly erupted into impassioned yelling. Their faces both became flushed and their hands waved about in complicated gestures. After a few minutes, the smith seemed to capitulate and huffed. Elisabetta picked up the bag of coins and tossed it haphazardly onto the counter, flinging coins across it. The man, still huffing and presumably cursing to himself, disappeared behind a door and re-emerged shortly with another sack, this one with more coins stowed inside. Wordlessly, Elisabetta led me back outside.
The events that had just transpired still made little sense to me, but I managed to let out a few clumsy words. “Thank you, Madame Elisabetta.”
“Please, you need only refer to be as Elisabetta.”
I nodded. “I need to see Martelli.”
She shrugged. “He is in his manor, I would suppose. I imagine that you would know better where he is than I.”
“I need to go to Martelli’s manor.”
“Oh!” She laughed. “Yes, I should have figured. Follow Via Vici west and bear north at Caballo Borracho and then continue down that road. His manor is unmistakable.”
“I do not understand.”
She brought her hand toward her face. “The tavern. Go to the tavern and turn right. There is music and it reeks of wine. Do you know what wine is?” Her temper seemed to be flaring.
“Yes.” I said. She huffed and turned her back to me, clearly not impressed with my response. After a moment, I spoke again. “I want to read.”
She slowly turned toward me again, perhaps remembering the fondness she had felt for the dumb orc in front of her just a few moments prior. “Okay.” She now spoke sheepishly and quietly. “I can teach you. We own an impressive collection of literature. I will be here most nights. When you want to learn, come find me here after dusk.” I nodded. There was yet another awkward silence before she spoke again. “What is your name, you strange, strange orc?”
“Mastiff.” I said. Her eyebrows furled, but she made no comment. Yet another moment passed.
“Well then, ‘Mastiff‘.” She emphasized my name in a strange way. “I hope to see you again.”
“Good night, Elisabetta.”
“Good night, Mastiff.”
My conversation with Elisabetta left me feeling strange. As I walked back toward Martelli’s manor, I felt different. The conversation between Elisabetta and myself loomed strongly over my thoughts, but I had not the words to describe the phenomenon. Perhaps, I wondered, I would learn them soon.