He appeared from a group of trees right in front of us and stopped, scenting the air.
Up until this moment, the day had been bleak and uneventful. After setting out in darkness before dawn, we had been trudging across the seemingly endless hills and frozen marshland for hours, the journey passing as slowly as a bad dream. Now, almost instantly, I was wide awake and sharpened my senses, ashamed at almost having been caught off-guard.
A layer of frost covered the brown grass of the frozen marsh, reflecting the red rays of the dawning sun and bathing the flatlands in an eerie light. Bushes of reeds huddled together at the banks of icy ponds, while gnarly trees stretched their barren branches to the sky. A sharp wind blew from the east, over the jagged edge of the Frostweaver, chilling us with the icy touch of the gigantic glacier and whirling clouds of powdered snow off the steep walls and across the marshlands. The abrupt end of the massive glacier ascended like impregnable wall of ice to the east, blocking our view into the land of our enemies. Grey clouds passed over the frozen cliff, driven relentlessly by the wind, forming a celestial fortress beyond the glittering rampart.
The scout moved again and squatted, eyeing his surroundings, breathing heavily, his breath rising like steam in the cold air.
Soon, he would disappear into the bushes again, I thought. My clammy fingers sought the wood of my bow, which lay on the stones in front of me. No sooner had I reached its shaft than I felt Galad’s hand on my shoulder, a silent warning to hold back. The Utran archer was older, wiser and more experienced than I, and his instincts rarely failed him. A few seconds later, three more scouts slid silently out of the bushes in front of us. One careless move, and I would have doomed us both. Trying to remain as still as possible, I mustered the four figures who appeared to be communicating silently with hand signs.
The orcs were tall and burly, with dull and dark hide. Their movements were quick and fluid, and they had little in common with their clumsy, green-skinned cousins, the Grarg, that I knew from my homelands. Known to the people of house Utran simply as mountain orcs, they call themselves the Sharok.
The scouts arranged themselves in a half-circle around a group of trees, and thankfully remained unaware of our presence. Again, there was movement behind the trees and more orcs appeared, obviously less concerned with stealth. Like a pack of wolfes they emerged from the undergrowth one by one and spread out. I counted no fewer than twelve, their bodies colored with paint and smeared with animal blood, spears and clubs gripped tightly in gnarly fists. They made a smaller semi-circle around the group of trees and squatted on their heels, their watchful red eyes glowing like embers. With quick breaths they drew the cold air in greedily, scenting for prey. I felt Galad stiffen next to me and shortly, the leaders of this small band came out of the trees. The first was a tall warrior bearing the black iron armor of a veteran. He stopped amidst his men and muttered a few commands in the growling speech of the servants of darkness. Like dogs they followed his orders, creeping further apart to make room of the second new arrival.
The shaman seemed small next the armored giant, but he was surrounded by an aura of malice and evil as only the true minions of Zarach possess. None of the other orcs so much as looked at him, the wind blowing the scent of their fear in our direction. As they cowered in the grass, even the armored orc turned away from this fearsome creature, avoiding eye contact. Then the shaman dragged something out of the bushes. At first, I could only make out a tuft of blond hair before I recognized the shape of a human. It was Dunhil, part of the first group, bound by rope and gagged with a thick strand of leather. His group had left an hour before Galad and I to scout the area north of the Icegate. Luck had obviously not been on their side.
The shaman gazed around suspiciously, then looked to the group of trees and nodded his head, seemingly satisfied with the choice of location. He threw his prisoner to the ground and knelt down beside him. With a growling singsong, he began to draw iron spikes from his belt and ram them into the earth. The other orcs mouthed the words of his song silently, like an often-heard prayer. Suddenly, the shaman grabbed poor Dunhil and thrust him down onto the spikes. Weakened, but still conscious, the scout still managed to break his fall slightly with his knees, yet the spikes penetrated his flesh an inch deep. At that instant, I nigh on charged the group, but again Galad’s hand held me back. The Utran began to retreat slowly, inching away from the orcs and their captive.
As Dunhil’s blood slowly began to cover the earth, the shaman raised his voice, his eyes glowing with power and madness. My comprehension of the dark tongue was still limited at that time, but I understood enough to know he was calling the ancient spirits of this place, asking for their power and protection in the upcoming battle in exchange for this human sacrifice.
As the orc ritual progressed, the air seemed to thicken and a cold wind began to blow, shaking the branches of the trees and sending a shiver down my spine. The shaman reached down and grabbed the dying scout’s hair, holding his head up as the orc raised his voice once again. Calling to the Blood God, he reached for his belt and grabbed the Claw of Zarach, a ritual weapon with five blades, bent and twisted like the roots of a tree. He held the claw high above his head, praying for the blessing of the Blood-drinker. His followers growled and hissed, in a frenzy of anticipation for the bloody deed they knew would follow. Their breath steamed from mouths distorted by rage and hate, their horrible stench wafting over to our hiding place. Galad crawled faster, but I was spellbound by this bizarre ritual.
A thunder rose from the heavens and the earth shook as if the Blood God Zarach himself had shaken in anticipation. The black clouds gathered quicker and quicker, streaming over the edge of the glacier and blocking out the light of the new day. The slobbering shaman gripped his weapon tighter and struck out to slit Dunhil’s throat and thus complete the ritual.
Where I had been frozen by fear, something else took hold of me now. Even today I am shamed by the foolishness of my actions that dismal morning. Despite Galad’s warning grip, I rose as if in a dream and drew my bow. With frostbitten fingers I pulled back the bowstring and in the blink of an eye unleashed an arrow straight into the shaman’s forehead. The orcs froze, their chant interrupted, but it was only an instant before their surprise turned to rage. The armored veteran was on his feet in a flash, lept over his comrades and thundered toward me like a raging bull. Paralysed by fear, I could only stare at the charging warrior, the jagged edge of his sword ready to split my skull, when a arrow from Galad’s bow shot into his throat just above the cuirass. He fell and skidded to a halt mere inches from my feet, his eyes glaring at me with hatred and bloodthirst as he drew a final breath. With a blood-curdling scream, the other orcs arose and took their weapons. “Run, you fool!” Galad’s voice broke my paralysis and I turned and ran. Another arrow from the Utran’s bow zipped past me and I heard a thud close behind me, followed by a gurgling scream. “Run! Run! Hurry back the camp! Tell them they’re coming!“ Again, the bow sang and another orc dropped to the ground. I ran to the west, stumbling over the rough terrain, heading for the safer ground on the slopes of the mountain. The orcs’ screams became louder and louder, and I saw them coming from every direction. From north and south the fearful screams of an entire army sounded, rising from the marshes. Like a wave they rose, a sea of fearful creatures, throwing off all secrecy and joining their comrades, smelling blood and prey. Growling and slobbering, the orcs started to chase me. Now the first of their war drums started to beat, louder and more threatening than the rolling thunder of a coming storm. The thundering that washed over the marshes was overwhelming, driving me forward like a leaf on the wind. And then the heavens opened and rain began to pour down from the grey clouds that had followed the army from the east. I stumbled on through icy winds and hail, and as much as the sleet and rain hindered my progress, so they also hid me from the horde of orcs that followed me. I ran and cried, cried not just because of the bone-chilling cold and pain in my limbs, but also for Galad, who had sacrificed himself to spare me.
Only when I felt rocks under my boots did the rain begin to slow and the clouds lighten, and I made out the familiar silhouette of the mountain peaks. In the distance, at the foot of the cliffs, I could see the banners of the Utran camp. The guards had already seen me approach, and had signalled the main camp. Only now, close to the relative safety of the camp, did I dare to slow and turn around. My message was no longer needed. Through the clouds and fog, the fires and torches that the approaching army had ignited after the storm appeared as a glowing red line along the eastern horizon. The Sharok had come through the Icegate, were invading our lands, and tomorrow the Blood God would hold a feast. And the powerful, pulsing beat of the orc drums rolled like distant thunder, a thunder that bode ill from the east.
Angar Arandir „Thirty Days on the Border“