“Why Didn’t the Orc Cross the Road?”
It’s a joke in every tavern, taproom, bar, and brothel this side of the Niben. There are as many answers as there are askers: “because he’d have had to leave the mud,” or “there wasn’t a pigsty on the other side,” or “he’s already at his sister’s; he lives there!”
It doesn’t matter what the answer is, as long as it’s rude. The question’s never asked seriously.
But why don’t Orcs cross roads? Or travel along them – I’ve never seen an Orc hiking down a causeway; even in cities they are rarely part of normal traffic.
There might have been a good reason in the past, when roads meant civilization and civilization meant humans out for blood. That’s supposedly in the past now, and yet the roads are still empty of Orcs.
“No, never,” the old woman says. She’s one of those eternal women rural villages in High Rock all seem to have; if you’ve been to one, you know who I mean. Bent, skin more wrinkled than a crumpled broadsheet, hair white as snow and thin as rainwater, without family or money yet still somehow living in her own house with enough candles to light a palace and enough rugs to pave the way from here to Daggerfall in wool.
“But there are countless stories of travelers being waylaid by Orcs!” I replied. I’d been collecting such stories for the past few months. She herself had just told me one, before I asked if Orcs used roads.
“Oh, yes. They love to come get you out between towns, alone, nobody around to hear. But they never jump you in the daylight, while you’re on the way. They’ll follow you from the woods, or from behind the next hill, or hide in the grasses, but they won’t walk on roads, or come after you while you’re on one. When you turn off to make camp for the night, though…” she trailed off and raised an eyebrow meaningfully.
“Do you know why they do that?”
She looked at me scornfully.
“On the road, we can see them coming, and we can run away. Orcs sprint faster than humans, you know, but they tire far sooner. On an empty road, with advance warning, us humans can almost always get away. So they have to wait until we stop, and get off the road, and can’t see them. Then they have surprise, and the poor saps are too tired to put up much of a fight or run, and there’s no one to see or hear and come after the girls they take.” She spat on the floor, somehow hitting hardwood instead of one of the countless rugs. I hadn’t noticed it while she was talking, but when she turned her head to spit, a long scar was visible on her cheek, running up the back of the jaw and into her hairline.
“So it’s just a matter of raiding tactics, then?”
“Of course it is, boy. What more reason would they need? What more would they even have? That’s all they know; that’s all they are.”
“What kind of ash-spewing question is that?” the Orc asked, before taking another drink. “Why do you care where I walk?”
I elected not to mention the tavern joke. The glint in his eye told me he’d heard it before.
“I was just curious, because I know there are a lot of Orcs here in Bruma, and I came here from Anvil which has a Little Orsinium of its own, and yet I only saw one of you on the whole trip. A few hundred yards off the road, staring at a rock formation.”
“Maybe we don’t move around much.”
“You really mean to tell me that your people finally have full Imperial citizenship, including rights to property and travel, and you’re not using them?”
“Maybe we just don’t travel around you lot.” He rapped his empty tankard on the bar, then set it, upside down, on the far side. A barkeep snagged it on his way to the other end of the bar.
“I didn’t mean to be rude…” I said, trailing off as I ran out of sentence before I thought up a convincing second half.
“HO, Moktul!” the barkeep called, as a filled tankard slid across the wooden bar and into the back of Moktul’s hand.
“That’s still not my name,” he growled, but flicked a coin back down the bar and took a drink. “You people don’t have the teeth for it.”
He growled again, then turned to face me.
“It’s not because we avoid humans. Obviously. It’s also not some long tradition born of banditry or the Exile, though both of those played into avoiding your roads.” He gave me a level look. “The whole thing is exaggerated far beyond what it really is. Imagine me asking why you humans have as many eating utensils as you do, or why you all use the same ancestor’s name. It’s just how you are.”
He took another drink.
“Your roads are broken.”
I frowned in confusion, and decided to have another fork of stew — they make thick stew in Bruma — while waiting for clarification. None came.
“The roads aren’t broken. The Empire sinks a lot of money into roads.”
He shook his lower jaw from side to side in what I’d figured out was a gesture of mild irritation among Orcs, like rolling our eyes.
“Your roads aren’t broken broken. They’re… how to explain. They’re picky.”
“Roads are… picky?”
He growled again, then drank. Moktul, or whatever his name actually was, didn’t seem to have a wide range of expressions.
“How far is it from here to Chorrol?” he asked.
“A day, if you start out close enough to dawn,” I replied quickly.
He slammed his mug down hard, sloshing dark brown beer over the edge.
“I asked how FAR, you kreygul bothkar of an idiot human, not the time. Iksh gabzul!”
“Thirty-five, forty miles?” I said. I knew there were mileposts on the route, but they weren’t numbered, and I couldn’t remember exactly how many there were.
“Thirty-eight and two sevenths,” he shot back. “Five if you take the lowland fork. You ever stop and ask yourself how normal humans can hike forty miles in a day? The Legion can march it in eight hours. Six, if they don’t have to fight on arrival.”
“That sounds like our roads aren’t broken at all,” I said.
“No. Your roads work well for you. Too well. You humans have good endurance, but not that good.” He drank again, then took a fork of my stew.
“You cheat. Your roads, they push you as you walk them. They don’t push us; actually, they pull. Slow us down, make it harder to take each step.” He shrugged. “It goes the other way for us. Your roads may hate us, from being shaped by you, but virgin rock, unworked and shaped only by the Earth Mother, on that we can fly.” He grinned, showing all his teeth for once.
He rolled another coin down the bar, where it vanished under the barkeep’s flashing fingers, and stumped out of the tavern. I watched him leave, and sure enough, he turned immediately out the door, trudging in the churned dirt on the side of the city street.
I took a few more bites of stew, and washed them down with beer.
“That’s got to be one of their myths,” I muttered. “Roads don’t do that…”
I paid for my meal and left, thinking about my walk here from Anvil. I had come across about half the province in three days. I passed by the Chorrol Road on my way to a bookstore, and happened to see a caravan coming into town, slowing down as they passed under the gate. Strangely enough, the guards on foot didn’t seem to change stride.
I wonder if the bookseller has anything on civil engineering.