He blinked as he stumbled back, dazed. His arm throbbed from the force of the blow he’d barely managed to catch on his shield, and as he flung his right arm up to shield his eyes he flexed his left hand to try to work sensation back into it. He threw himself to the right, knowing that he would land among scree and have bad footing when he got up, but at least the next blow would miss him.
There was no scree.
He rolled and came up to his feet as he finally realized what his eyes were telling him. His opponent had vanished. In fact, the Skyrim mountainside where he’d been fighting had vanished. The broad expanse of clear blue sky, the rolling green and grey and gold of the rocks and grass, the chirping and screaming and howling of the animals, all these were gone. In their stead, he gazed at a formless, endless fog in which dust swirled and blew in constantly shifting puffs.
He was afraid to look down.
He looked down.
Ghalurok paced across the clearing from him. There was no joy on his face, no eagerness or anticipation. There was only determination and, he hoped, regret. Ghalurok owed him that much, at least.
“There’s no need for this. You could be anywhere else and none would have thought the less of you.”
He couldn’t believe his ears. “Only because there’s nothing less of me to think.”
Ghalurok cocked his head in puzzlement. Admittedly, that sentence had not come out as he’d hoped, but then, that was nothing new. What was one more mistake to close a life full to the brim with them?
Ghalurok shook his head sadly. “So be it.”
Ghalurok spun his mace up to the ready, met his eyes one last time, and attacked.
DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE
He would have sighed, if he dared. There was only one possible answer to that question, and it meant that his last words were not, in fact, his last mistake. He wasn’t sure if that was a blessing or not.
“Yes. I’m in hell.”
His mind reeled as his Father smashed in. He was falling, falling, ash rushing by in countless, endless streaks—
“You know I love you like a son—”
“I am your son.”
Was that pain in her eyes?
“—so please just listen and obey. You don’t need to be here. You know Ghalurok. You know what he’ll do to you. Just go!”
That’s a strange definition of love, mother.
“There’s no good staying here if it means your death. No shame in going to the cities, or Orsinium.”
“There is for me.”
DO YOU KNOW WHY YOU ARE HERE
That was painfully obvious. But one such as him did not bandy words with one such as Him.
Ghalurok grinned at him.
“Come on, hit me!”
The onlookers traded murmurs. This wasn’t the first time he and Ghalurok had sparred. It wouldn’t be the last. But he could make it the best. He’d been spending a lot of time in the mines.
He hit him. Wonder of wonders, Ghalurok actually staggered. Ghalurok laughed.
Ghalurok hit back.
YOU WERE WEAK
Water was wet. Sky was blue. Snow was cold.
Was there anything more boring than mine work? Go into the dark, swing and swing and cart and cart. Some shifts would be weeks in the tunnels, never seeing light that wasn’t a dim, smoky yellow or the painful blue of a conjured globe. And there was the dust. They all wore their shirts over their faces instead of their chests. He supposed an outsider would be shocked by the women doing this, not just the men, but then, outsiders had ridiculous notions about sex. Killing their women just to satisfy ideas about what was proper? Stupid death was improper. Breasts were breasts. He didn’t see why outlanders cared so much about where cloth went. The mines weren’t cold.
He supposed this was one of the reasons he didn’t take the constant advice to leave, to strike out on his own. See what the cities or the countryside might have in store for him. Men were weird. Elves were alien. This was home. Even in the mines.
At least he was getting stronger. Well, less pathetically weak.
YOU WERE A FOOL
It was his tenth birthday. He supposed he was a man now. No, not supposed. He was a man now. The whole Stronghold was celebrating, of course. Everybody loved Dekadays. Old Bagrol the Wise Woman invoked the Father’s blessing and burned a haunch of deer that he’d killed as sacrifice. Aunt Shaf the Forge-Wife gave him a sword and shield of his own, though he wouldn’t grow into them for another five years. Ghalurok was there too, eyes shining with pride for him. Despite being two years younger, Ghalurok was already the same size as him. They fought regularly, but they were good friends.
In a rare display of emotion, his father even hugged him awkwardly. In public, even! As he looked around, he could almost see the Stronghold in ten years. He would be Chief after his father, and Ghalurok would be his Fist. Maybe they would even take more land from the humans.
That was one of the last days he dreamed that.
YOU WERE BRAVE
He didn’t have an answer to that.
He was five and learning under Old Bagrol. Ghalurok had just turned three and knew how to speak, but now he was learning how to listen. Ghalurok sat quietly against the wooden post, bashing a rock against a stick. The rock had two smears of white paint on it. Tusks. The stick was just a stick.
“Tell me again what Malacath asks of his children.”
“Very good. What is courage?”
“Getting into fights!”
Bagrol smiled. “No, lad. Anyone can pick a fight. It takes honor to fight for the correct reasons, and it takes courage not to fight at all.”
He looked up at her in confusion.
“How is running away brave?”
“I didn’t say running away. Look at young Ghalurok there. Would it be courageous of you to fight him?”
Ghalurok looked up when he heard his name, grinned at him, and went back to bashing his stick with his rock.
“Because…” he chewed his lip as he thought. “It wouldn’t be a fair fight? Just me beating him up?”
“Yes! Now suppose he hit you with that rock. Would you still fight him?”
“I might punch him once or twice, but…” he looked at Bagrol’s unreadable face. “Is that okay?”
“Of course it is. He hit you with a rock. Hitting him back is still not courage, for he is weaker than you. But it is honor, for insult requires retribution. But you must never strike harder in response than the attack demands. A man with a sword is one thing. A child with a rock is quite another.”
DO YOU KNOW WHAT I ASK OF MY CHILDREN
He supposed he didn’t.
The rain drummed ceaselessly on the shingle roof above him. He coughed in his bed, a wet racking cough that shook his whole body. He hadn’t been able to keep a meal down for a week, and water only barely. What weight he had to spare was slipping fast out of reach.
Bagrol gently cut his arm, then pressed a rag soaked in something up against the wound. It stung, but he was too tired to protest. Beyond her, his father and mother stood at the wall. Though his mother was visibly concerned, his father stood gruff and unmoved. He was sure it was just the set of his father’s brow and the way the tusks shaped his mouth, but he could never shake the feeling that his father was disappointed in him for being sick and weak, and that it was his own failing that caused it.
Finally, the Chief grunted and turned to the door, and was gone. His mother rushed to his bed and gave him a quick hug. “I love you,” she whispered, and reluctantly let go. Then she too vanished into the night.
Bagrol lifted the compress, stretched the cut open again, and set it back down.
“Your family loves you, dear. They’re just worried,” she said softly. “I’ll be right back, dear. Just need to get some more herbs.”
And he was alone.
STRENGTH IS MEANINGLESS ALONE
Ghalurok stepped into the blow, stiffening his rib-muscles as the punch landed. Ghalurok’s head slammed into his chest, sending him staggering back. Ghalurok stayed bent down, and charged him; shoulder met chest with a meaty slap and they both tumbled to the rocks.
HONOR DOES NOT FEED THE CLAN
He and Ghalurok were hunting; their target was not only the deer grazing upwind of them, but the Nord hunter who had yet to spot them. Ghalurok nodded at him, and they split up. He kept his sight on the deer as Ghalurok slipped towards the Nord. A badger hissed, then growled; Ghalurok was ready. Three. Two. One. The arrow lept from his bow as Ghalurok’s stone took the Nord in the skull.
MY CHILDREN ARE NOT THE PEOPLE BEST WITH STRENGTH, OR HONOR, OR FEROCITY
He and Ghalurok were given the first cuts of the deer. He tore ravenously into his, while Ghalurok regaled the Stronghold with how he’d taken out the oblivious Nord so that the deer would be theirs.
MY CHILDREN ARE THE PEOPLE BEST WITH FAMILY
They danced around the fire; the whole Stronghold was together and everyone had something to celebrate. Kumaz had been awarded a smithing contract in Markarth; Ukishoba had spoken with the Father last week. Khozul died fighting three saber-cats, bringing their pelts with him to the Pits, and his brother swore by all the Ash that there was a bear involved as well. Or maybe it was a small mammoth. He was one of the only joovs not cavorting around the flames, but he supposed that would have to change as Voraif threaded her way through the throng to him.
“Looking for a brawl?” she asked with a wicked smirk.
He grinned back.
“Am I ever.”
DO YOU KNOW WHERE YOU ARE
He did. Father had spoken little, but the memories he showed were instructive enough. There were no excuses for his failings, but there was some forgiveness in seeing the arena tilted against him.
“Yes. I’m home.”
“Come, come!” his mother called. He stumbled to her as quickly as his two-year-old legs could carry him. She picked him up and smiled at him. “Do you want to meet your brother?”
He nodded and smiled, baring tiny tusks.
She ducked into the longhouse. There, Aunt Shaf lay panting on a bed. In her arms was a baby Orc.
“Wassname?” he asked.
Mother repeated the question. “What are you going to call him, sister?”
Shaf smiled up at them and hugged her baby close.