Challenge

A Fantasy Short Story by ZF Sigurdson

Challenge

by ZF Sigurdson
* Website
* Scarlette Leaf Review publication ‘Treasure Hunt’

Angela C. Hebert
* Editing Service

 

The Orc Burrow was built in the ruined remains of a temple, or church, or whatever the humans called it. The roof had collapsed in the distant pass. The broken glass of the windows still cluttered the corners, the walls were shattered, and the benches used up for firewood.

The remains were a remarkable hollow animal. A ribcage of wooden pillars still formed the long hall with the ends still intact. The front door hung on rusted hinges. The rear wall of the church was now the front of the Bosses’ Shack. Above the door was the humans’ dead god with its arms pinned to a cross. Its head had been replaced with an ugly monster glyph years prior.

The bell tower leaned precariously on its side. The bell remained, but it was now etched with strange and crude sigils. A single flickering light could been seen in the window of the tower.

A pair of orcs approached the Burrow. They climbed the steps and entered through the doors hanging on their rusted hinges.

A mob of their fellow clanbrothers had followed them. The various huts and shacks that occupied the surrounding terrain had emptied to see what was about to happen.

The thinner of the lead pair, Wyre, grinned with his polished white, jagged fangs. His second, his thicker brother, Brik, followed closely behind.

Wyre looked up. The sky was dank and gray, as if the gods promised rain soon. A crow sat on top of the bell tower. It cried at Wyre before flying off into the nearby trees.

Wyre knew, Today is the day I die.

He grinned and marched on into the ruined church. The realm of their Boss. Boss Narrok. Narrok Silvereyes. Narrok the Crusher. Narrok the Coward, thought Wyre.

Wyre stood in the church’s doorway. His clawed hand felt the warm grip of his blade.

His blade was his only possession of note. Anything else would have been taken by the Bosses. A four-foot-long blade of slightly curved and razor-sharp metal. Strong and flexible with an extended handle almost a foot and a half long. A bizarre blade for an orc. Wyre made it work.

Wyre wore a vest of blue denim, salvaged from human leavings, and a pair of billowing red trousers tied with a belt. A dog skin draped across his shoulder. A single bone spike pierced through his pointed ear.

He grinned. His black, watery eyes focused on the Bosses’ hut. A warm glow danced between the ragged curtains of the doorway.

He marched forward, Brik at his side. His brother was thicker at the chest and shoulders than Wyre, something he had been jealous of for a very long time. Brik was raw power. Wyre was forced to be smarter.

And because he was smarter, Wyre and Brik had become the unspoken leaders of the runts, the young orcs who begged and died at the behest of the Bosses and Caps.

They were a great team.

Things needed to change, however.

Some things needed to end.

All things gotta end.

The crowd gathered further. Orcish faces occupied the spaces between the ribcage of the Burrow. Runts and Boys of all sizes watched. The Caps, the minor mob leaders stood a head or so above the rest.

Everyone watched with quiet anticipation.

Wyre stood in the centre of the former church. The stone floor polished smooth with generations of occupiers. It was cold beneath his bare feet.

An ancient pale hound chained to the dais lifted up an ear. Its lazy, watery eye considered barking at the young orcling, but realized it was too much effort and went back to sleep.

Wyre inhaled, gathering as much air as he could muster. This was it. This was everything. He roared, “My name is Wyre! Brother of Brik. RuntBoss of the SilverMutt Clan. I have come to challenge Boss Narrok Silvereyes for the SilverMutt Clan!”

There was a ripple of whispers throughout the audience. Orcs big and small looked at one another in amazement. Once the initial wave of murmurs hushed, every head turned towards Bosses hut. A single hooded figure could be seen in the dark tower overlooking the Burrow.

A slow beat of footfalls creaked on the floorboards of the dais. A huge shadow overwhelmed the low light within the hut.

Boss Narrok stepped out of his hut and on to the dais. At almost seven feet tall, he was the biggest monster in the clan, and therefore the leader. A walking mountain of green flesh. Arms like front loaders, legs like tree trunks and a head built like a steel crate. The boss wore only a skit of pale dog skins and the skull of a dog as his belt buckle. His wide chest was rippled like cables beneath pine-green leather.

On his shoulder was his beastly cleaver. Three feet of pure black steel with a silvery edge to match the Boss’s, bizarrely coloured, bright silver eyes. The boss threw back his head in a booming deep laugh. “You!? You!? A RuntBoss? Who in the Great Green ever thought of something so focking stupid!

Laughter echoed through the crowd. Mostly half-hearted to appease the Boss. None of the smallest runts, the majority of the clan, cracked even a smile.

Boss Narrok stepped down from the dais, still laughing, “What kind of focking whelp thinks he can challenge me! Get out of here, boy. Before I smash your skull and use it for a piss pot.”

Wyre chuckled. “How can you use my skull for a piss pots when it’s crushed to pieces?” Step one: Make Him Mad.

Narrok’s silver eyes went wide. He bared his teeth in a vicious threat. Most of the clan observed complete silence. The dozens of runts cackled with roaring laughter.

“You little git!” barked the Boss. “You are nothing! Who are you to challenge me?!”

“I am nothing because this clan is nothing! We live in dirt and live off meager hunts. If I am nothing, it is because we have all become nothing! And a nothing can challenge the Boss of Nothing!”

Narrok’s patience ended. He roared, “Deff, Vav, Jaaz!” Three of the largest Caps. “Rip this shit apart.”

Three of the largest members of the clan rushed forward.

A single clear tone echoed across the burrow. Crows scattered from the nearby trees. Everyone froze and looked up.

The Clan’s Shaman, OldMutt, stood at the top of the bell tower. He held a dog’s skull in his gnarled hand. His hooded cloak of dog skins shadowed his wrinkled green face. He struck it against the bell again, another tone pierced the air.

He cackled a single word: “Dishonour!”

The meaning was simple. If Boss Narrok dismissed the challenge and disrespected the corresponding traditions, the Boss would be dishonoured.

Narrok’s silver eyes narrowed at the Elder, then at Wyre. His huge shoulders sank. He set the tip of the cleaver against the ground.

Wyre’s entire body shook with nervous anticipation. Step Two: Compel the challenge to be accepted.

Those were the two easy steps.

Wyre leaned to Brik. “Ready?”

His brother sighed. “Yeah, let’s get this over with. I’d rather burn your corpse before it gets too dark out.”

“Don’t be so negative. It’s unbecoming.”

Narrok roared, “Fine, Fine! What’s your issue, boy?!”

“You let this clan lie in rabble and dirt! You let us live in misery! I won’t stand it! You bully and abuse this clan like a child’s toy. I won’t stand it!” Wyre raised his longblade at the monstrous boss. “I will take this clan and I will raise us to greatness!”

Wyre had seen enough brothers killing each other. Enough pathetic hunts, enough boys lying in the dirt bleeding for daring to have a piece of food in sight of anyone else. Orcs were violent. Fighting is all any of us has. It did not have to be this way. We don’t have to fight ourselves. We can conquer. We can loot. We can be great.

As the old Great Hordes did.

Step Three: Get support.

Narrok laughed. “Ha! That’s it? HA! And who supports this claim? Who supports this RuntBoss!?

Brik stepped forward, arms crossed. “I do. A clan that does nothing is nothing. We are dirt.” He pointed. “We are dirt because of you!”

Brik crossed to one side of the dirty arena to the other, arms raised. “Brothers! We cannot let this sad Boss have us roll in the dirt and call it greatness! We must fight! We must hunt! I ask you! Do you support my Broodbrother, Wyre!”

The runts shrieked and cackled in agreement. Their thin and emaciated frames were visible proof of the vile bleakness of their existence. Other boys, the worst off, the ones with poor clothes and poorer meals, joined in the chorus of support.

A clan was a pyramid. The weakest and most numerous runts and boys were at the bottom, the Caps and Bosses at the top. Only the fear of reprisal kept the order in place. Only fear against an unwinnable battle. Fear of the Bosses.

Shaman OldMutt rang the bell again as his agreement that the challenge was accepted and the support genuine.

There was only one course of action for Boss Narrok.

Now comes the hard part, thought Wyre. Step four: Fight.

Boss Narrok stepped off the dais. “Fine. Let’s get this over with.” His heavy footfalls seemed to shake the wreckage of the church. He was twice the weight of Wyre and a full foot and a half taller. He dragged his cleaver against the ground. Metal screeched against stone.

“This ain’t gonna go well,” whispered Brik.

“Real fuckin’ encouraging, brother,” said Wyre. He shouldered off his vest and dog skins, letting the heavy fabric to fall to the ground. He stretched the muscles across his chest and shoulders. He could do this. Maybe? 1

Wyre’s blade was longer, and he was faster than Narrok. It was his only hope. He held up his blade in both hands for a low guard, as to parry and counter quickly.

Narrok held up his cleaver in an offensive guard, his stance wide and secure. He grinned.

Wind blew across the Burrow. Leaves tumbled across the dusty square in dancing spirals. The grey sky watched above. The gods would be silent on the proceedings.

The gods had forgotten us a long time ago.

Everything was silent.

The entire clan watched.

Narrok burst from his position, cleaver raised. He slammed it down at Wyre’s head. Wyre parried it away and slid to the side. He jabbed at the Boss’s shoulder and was rewarded by an ear-piercing roar.

Red-purple blood leaked down Narrok’s bicep.

The Boss wasn’t expecting that.

Narrok turned to bring his cleaver down again. Wyre slid back on his heels, trading his sword between hands. Narrok was mad now. He had expected this fight to already be over.

Wyre grinned just to annoy the Boss.

Narrok roared and launched himself back at Wyre, a mountain of flesh barreling right at the boy. Wyre used his speed and size against the Boss. He circled and weaved around the great monster. He caught the cleaver against his blade and guided it away. Each heavy clash sent vibrations up Wyre’s arms. He thrust quickly and retreated. He couldn’t be greedy.

He slid backwards again, leaving another two gashes on the Boss’s arms and shoulders. Strings of saliva hung from the Boss’s fangs. Tiny streams of red-purple ribbons rolled down his green skin.

Wyre’s arms were shaking. He couldn’t continue this for long. The boss was too strong and Wyre was already getting tired.

Narrok attacked again.

Wyre parried again and he just slid backwards. He was cornered against one of the pillars of the church. An invitation

Narrok barreled forward. Wyre waited before the last second and dove to the side. Narrok slammed into the pillar. The bricks shattered and tumbled over the boss. The Boss growled before he could rise.

Wyre laughed. “Is this your Boss?! Is this your leader?! The one to lead us?” Instead of attacking, as he probably should have, he raised his arms to the tribe. “Is this what we are? Just mindless monsters attacking everything in sight? Is this all we are?!”

Narrok growled and got to his feet, dust stuck to bleeding wounds. Rubble rolled off his wide shoulders. Narrok’s silver eyes were tiny within his brow. He launched himself at Wyre like a mad dog.

Wyre twisted around, barely in time. He didn’t have the leverage to parry away the cleaver. It bit into his blade. Exactly what Wyre was trying to avoid. Narrok used his mass against Wyre. The sheer force locked the blades together and Wyre couldn’t maneuver. He slid back on his heels.

Narrok grinned. “Weak.”

The Boss shoved with the force of a hurricane. Wyre lost his footing and tumbled across the ground.

Narrok roared and smashed his blade downwards. Wyre rolled away. The cleaver bit into the ground, sending chips of stone flying. Wyre reached for his blade, his fingers almost grazing the handle.

Narrok slammed his leg into Wyre’s side. The boy tumbled across the burrow before slamming into a pillar. His chest seized.

The Boss laughed. Wyre wiped the dust from his eyes. The Boss loomed over the runtling. A hulking shadow against the grey sky. His chest heaved with each breath. He laughed. “Pathetic Runt.”

Wyre gripped a handful of broken glass and dust.

The Boss reached to lift Wyre by the throat.

Wyre slammed the fistful of glass into Narrok’s silver eyes. Narrok roared and his huge form stumbled back with earthshaking footfalls. He clawed at his bleeding eyes.

Wyre used the opening. He spun on his arms and kicked out the Boss’s left leg. Narrok yelled as he lost his balance and crashed to the ground. Top heavy beast.

Wyre didn’t waste time. He got to his feet and kicked boss across the jaw. Pain spread up his shin.

Wyre grabbed his blade. “Brothers! All of you! There is a human village ten miles to the north, just sitting there. Sitting! Fat and rich! We’ve spent all our lives scavenging off their leavings and biting at each other. I say we should storm those fucking humies and take what is ours!”

Murmurs rose throughout the entire tribe. They weighed the options. If they exposed the tribe to the humans, they could suffer horrible repercussions. They could be exterminated like rats.

Wyre raised his blade. “We can either live like animals or we can be conquerors!”

“Stupid runt,” growled a voice behind him.

A force slammed into Wyre’s back and crashed with him onto the floor. The weight threatened to crush Wyre’s body. The Boss lifted up Wyre and slammed him against the ground. Something cracked. Wyre gasped for air.

He twisted in the Boss’s grip, managing to free one arm. He jabbed his clawed fingers into the Boss’s eyes. Tears and blood streamed out of the Boss’s already very damaged sockets. The Boss screamed. His grip squeezed harder, trying to crush Wyre with sheer mass.

Wyre jerked his hand back. The Boss shrieked and slammed Wyre against the ground. Wyre wheezed, everything hurt. The Boss stomped backwards, clutching his eyes as blood dripped down.

Wyre raised his hand. In his fingers he held the dripping eyeball of Narrok Silvereyes. The runts and boys exploded into cheers and war cries. Several Loyalists cried, “Bad form! Bad form! Mediocre!”

OldMutt nodded approval from the bell tower. It was a rude attack, but a runt fighting a Boss? Tradition allowed such dirty tactics for such unequal fights.

Wyre slowly got to his feet, clutching his side. He tossed the eyeball to the side. Brik rushed to him with water. He splashed it across his face and down his throat.

You’ve done it,” said Brik.

Almost. I need to end it.”

Boss Narrok gasped and roared with pain. Blood seeped between the fingers clutching his eye. A huge mountain of green killing machine on the verge of sobbing. Several Loyalists came to the Boss’s aid with water and bandages.

Narrok roared and swatted them to the side. “I’ll kill you! I’ll focking kill you, RuntBoss!”

Wyre shoved Brik to the side. He collected his blade, barely managing to lift it with one hand. His ribs throbbed with blinding pain. Wyre wiped his face, accidently streaking Narrok’s blood across his mouth.

His legs quaked.

The Loyalists brought Narrok his cleaver, but he refused. “I’ll rip you limb from limb, welp!”

The Boss charged.

Wyre grit his teeth, his entire body seemed to shutter with pain. He held his position, adopting a straight back, one-handed stance. He’d seen pictures of humans in a stance like this. Fencing, they called it.

Narrok barreled towards Wyre, crashing towards him like an avalanche. His remaining silver eye barely visible in his furious and bloodied scowl. A tiny silver dot of self-righteous anger.

Wyre exhaled.

Now.

With a single precise swipe, Wyre slashed upwards and towards the left. Red-purple blood splattered across the church ground. Narrok tumbled into a pillar. When the dust cleared, Narrok was on his back clutching his eyes. He kicked and screamed like an overgrown human child.

The entire tribe roared with either screams of dismay or cries of approval.

Narrok Silvereyes had been reduced to Narrok No-Eyes.

The Great Boss thrashed and kicked. “Where are you? Where are you? I’ll kill you! I’ll focking kill you!” He pawed like a clumsy bear searching for his prey. “Where is he?”

Wyre’s whole body shuttered. I actually did it.

The pain in his side redoubled. Wyre fell to one knee. What’s wrong with me? He’d broken ribs before, but never like this. His body still pumped with adrenaline. He used his blade to prop himself back to his feet.

He forced a triumphant smile. “Brothers! Will we be animals or will we be conquerors!”

Wyre’s supporters burst into cheers. Now a large majority of the tribe agreed. They would no longer be these backwoods animals living off meager hunts and roots. They wouldn’t bully and abuse each other. They would take what was theirs because it was theirs to take. Wyre raised his blade. “We will be like the Great Hordes of Old!”

RAAAAAAAAHH!!” roared the SilverMutt Clan.

Wyre looked to Brik, who had a neutral expression. No excitement. No pride. He had always been the quiet of the pair, but this was different.

Brik?

Wyre’s tongue felt dull and fuzzy in his mouth.

Fool… Fool… Cursing focking fool…” whimpered the defeated boss on the ground. Wyre stepped over to him, blade ready to end this. The challenge would not end until one of them was dead.

The Boss still clutched his face. Bloody tears running down his massive head. “You focking fool, you’ll kill them all…”

No Narrok, I’m freeing them.”

You’re dooming them. Attacking the humies is suicide. Attack one, the rest of the focking country hunts us down. We live when they ignore us. We live when we hide.” He pulled back his massive hands to reveal the blinded and bloodied mess that had been his eyes. A deep hole and gashes where his silver eyes had been. “We live when we are nothing.”

Living as nothing is not worth living.”

Narrok growled. “You fool, dying is nothing. Living is something.”

You won’t have that to worry about anymore.”

No?”

Wyre raised his blade to pierce Narrok’s heart. Before he could bring it down he felt his entire body seize. His back constricted like a metal cord. He gasped for air. He couldn’t move. A hand grasped his ankle.

The blind Narrok grinned as blood streamed down his cheeks.

Wyre looked at Brik at the last second. Brik averted his eyes, his frown full of shame.

Before Wyre could do anything Narrok thrashed him against the ground like a rag doll. Each crash sent new waves of throbbing pain through Wyre’s body. He stopped feeling anything after the third crash. His face smashed against the ground. He saw Brik turn away. Bones cracked and crunched against the ground. The crowd winced at each crash.

It happened all so fast.

Narrok dropped Wyre’s broken body against the ground. Wyre wheezed. He knew most of his ribs were broken, his cheek crushed, jaw dislocated, and his left arm broken in three places. His lower leg shattered where Narrok had gripped him and slapped him against the ground. Blood gurgled from his cracked lips. He was only vaguely aware of his surroundings. The shrieking runts and boys, completely shattered.

Brik stood at the edge of the Burrow, looking away. His frown deepened.

OldMutt had vanished from the top of the Bell Tower and returned to his lair.

The Boss rose unsteadily to his feet. Bloodied tears dripped onto his heaving chest. He pressed his foot onto what he judged to be Wyre’s chest. Wyre gasped for air as he felt the life leaking out of him.

Narrok looked down. “Boy, you think I didn’t know you’d be coming. You thought I didn’t know?”

Wyre wheezed, “Didn’t think I’d be that crafty, did you?”

Narrok wiped the blood leaking down his face. “Nah, I didn’t. Focking little monster. We knew what you were planning. We couldn’t let you lead the clan to its death.”

Wyre’s eyes gazed up towards Brik. His broodbrother vanished into the crowd. The sickening disgust in Wyre’s heart was beyond the pain of his body. He knew what had happened. The Water. Wyre spat a glob of blood. Curse you brother. May the Great Green see you bleed.

“Fock off, RuntBoss.” Narrok leaned in. Wyre’s ribcage crumpled under the Boss’s immense weight.

#

With the Challenge over, the Burrow was silent. The entire clan stared, trying to figure out what had just happened.

To them, Narrok had won. Wyre had just stopped moving and was shattered against the church ground. A trio of remaining Loyalists rushed forwards. One helped bind the Boss’s wounds, another wrapped a strip of fabric across his eyes. Sitting on the Church dais, Narrok stroked his ancient Hound’s ears.

Narrok whispered to one of his aides, “Kill Brik.”

One Cap ran off.

The rest of the tribe hadn’t moved. Narrok could feel their glares. He roared, “All of you! Fock off!”

His ears twitched.

Nobody had moved.

“I said Fock off!”

Nothing happened.

“Do I have to smash you all! Can’t you see I can murder you without even my eyes! Blind old Boss can still murder you!”

He heard the voices of several runtlings.

“Is it true?”

“What?” hissed Narrok.

“There is a human village just sitting there?”

“We could be more? We could fight?”

Narrok laughed through the pain. “If we attack there, then every goddamn humie for a thousand miles will kill us all! That ain’t a fight to be proud of! That ain’t a fight we can win! We just die like rats! Don’t you let that focking runtling poison your mind!”

“He died for us.”

“He died to see us be more.”

Narrok stood up. “We can’t be more!” He waved his arms, unable to see where the runt voices were coming from. “We’ll just die! Stupid runts! Can’t you see that?!” His heart drummed in his chest.

Voices and murmurs drifted across the tribe. Voices of revenge and confusion and martyrdom. Narrok didn’t like the sound of any of it. He roared, “All of you are nothing! Come at me! I dare you! I’ll rip you all apart before I let this clan march to suicide!”

Narrok reached for one of his Caps. “Kill any of the ones loyal to that runtling. Kill them all.”

The Cap grumbled.

Narrok pulled him close. “What?”

“We can’t kill the entire clan…” The Cap shoved off Narrok. “How’d you ever know if I’ve killed the right ones?”

Narrok’s stomach dropped. The wind began to pick up. It smelled like rain.

“How’d you know if we ever listened to you again?”

Narrok reached out. “Listen you stinking pigs! I am the boss! I am the one that keeps the humies from hunting us down like rats! I keep us alive!”

“How you supposed to do that anymore, Narrok No-Eyes?”

When the rain hit, Narrok couldn’t hear anything either.

1Ghost From the Barrow, Paddy And The Rats, (Tales from the Docks, January 1, 2012).

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